Atheists have been out in full force. Two atheists groups have brought lawsuits against two different school districts over prayer at school board meetings.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) that is based in Wisconsin, brought a lawsuit against the Chino Valley Unified School District in California. The American Humanist Association (AHA) based in Washington D.C. brought a separate lawsuit against the Birdville Independent School District in Texas.
However, the lawsuit against the Birdville School District goes a step further. The AHA also sued seven board members. The AHA and a former student, Isaiah Smith sued the district and board members Jack McCarty, Joe D. Tolbert, Brad Greene, Richard Davis, Ralph Kunkel, Cary Hancock and Dolores Webb.
Smith charged the district with favoring religion non-religion when a school board meeting began with an invocation. Smith said it made him feel “violated and uncomfortable.” He and the atheist group said they wanted “monetary damages” for the board’s actions.
The lawsuits allege the same thing; since school board meetings take place on school grounds, and because children are often present at such meetings, the school board is subjecting students to prayer which violates the Constitution.
Since 1997 it has been the practice of the Birdville School District to allow two students to open school board meetings. These students are picked at random from a list of volunteers and are from the elementary and middle school. One student opens by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the other by delivering a one-minute statement, which can be a prayer, often referring to Jesus Christ and inviting audience members to pray. Board members often stand and bow their heads during the invocations.
Did Smith feel violated over a one-minute prayer?
In 2014, the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education adopted a resolution permitting local religious leaders, on a rotating basis, to say a prayer before the beginning of a school board meeting. The purpose of the invocation is to solemnize proceedings for the benefit of the Board of Education and the community.
The resolution requests that the prayer opportunity not be exploited as an effort to convert others to the particular faith of the invocational speaker, nor to disparage any faith or belief different from that of the invocational speaker. According to the policy, invocational speakers are “free to offer the invocation according to the dictates of their own conscience,” and the school board plays no role in crafting or approving any prayer.
FFRF alleges that the Chino Valley school board’s invocation policy is unconstitutional because the invocations amount to an improper governmental endorsement of religion.
A single short prayer before a school board meeting establishes a religion? These oxymoron lawsuits seem to be nothing more than a subvert attack against America with the goal of stripping religion from this country.
These allegations are all too familiar as the Supreme Court has ruled against similar lawsuits;
In the 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court held that the Nebraska state legislature may open with an invocation. The Court recognized that “the opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
In a 2014 case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court ruled that a deliberative public body may open with a sectarian prayer, so long as there is not an ongoing practice of “invocations that denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.” Relying on a clear historical record, the Court held that “an insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer.”
As the Supreme Court acknowledged in these two cases, legislative prayer is a praiseworthy tradition that reaches back even before the founding of the nation. “From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.” It is a practice that “lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.”
Isn’t that the common goal of our country and the world; a just and peaceful society. Apparently not to these atheist groups. So what exactly is their goal?
According to the FFRF arguments, they want the Supreme Court to make a favorable ruling similar to other cases such as striking down teacher-led prayers within public school classrooms, forbidding a school-sponsored reading of the Bible to begin the school day, and disallowing invocations at graduation exercises.
However, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “Although it is possible to imagine a school-board student-expression practice that offends the Establishment Clause, this one, under it specific facts, does not.”
“The Supreme Court has ruled that prayers at state and local legislative meetings are permissible. The prayer opening a school board meeting is also permissible, as the court of appeals ruled. This is a stinging rebuke to groups that want to cleanse America of prayer. America was founded upon prayer and prayer has been a common practice since the founding. A short prayer does not establish a religion,” said Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder, and chairman.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) agrees with Stayer and argues to the court:
“A school board is not like a principal, teacher, or any other school employee hired by a school district to undertake the education of children. Like the education committee of a state legislature, a school board is a deliberative, elected public body that sets school policies and makes administrative decisions. A school board meeting, moreover, does not entail student-centered, school-sponsored activities like classroom instruction, high school graduations, and student athletic events. Like a session of a state legislature or town council, a school board meeting sets an agenda and conducts public business pursuant to that agenda, discussing, deliberating, and deciding matters related to the needs and future of the public schools within its authority. “In no respect,” therefore, is a school board “less a deliberative legislative body than was the town board in Galloway.” Indeed, as one scholar succinctly put it: A “school board meeting is not a school-sponsored function. Rather, it is sponsored by an elected body that oversees the schools.”
Both lawsuits by these atheist groups have lost their case in lower courts. What school district will be targeted next?