SAN FRANCISCO – A Southern California school board's policy of opening meetings with a prayer is unconstitutional because the prayers often invoke Christianity, and there are secular ways of accomplishing the board's goals of solemnizing meetings and showing respect for religious diversity, a U.S. appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that banned the prayers by the Chino Valley Unified School District board of education as a violation of the constitutional requirement that government not establish religion. The district is based in Chino, a city 35 miles east of Los Angeles.
Robert Tyler, an attorney for the school board, said the board was evaluating its next step, but had previously expressed a desire to "take this case as far as they can take it." He said the 9th Circuit ruling conflicted with a decision last year by another U.S. appeals court and conflated comments made by individual board members during meetings with the prayer policy.
"There's nothing unlawful or unconstitutional about allowing an invocation or ceremonial prayer before school board meetings," he said. Tyler compared the practice to prayers before legislative sessions, which courts have allowed.
The board policy called for the delivery of a prayer by a member of the clergy or another religious leader, but it also allowed the board president to solicit a volunteer from the board or the audience to deliver the remarks if the religious leader did not appear, according to the 9th Circuit ruling.
Board members regularly read from the Bible, invoked Christian beliefs, and engaged in additional prayer at the meetings. At one meeting, then-Board president James Na "urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him," the 9th Circuit said.
The 9th Circuit panel said some faiths were not represented on a list the board used to select the religious leader for the prayer. Agnostics and atheists were also not acknowledged, the court said.
"Instead, the prayers frequently advanced religion in general and Christianity in particular," judges M. Margaret McKeown, Kim McLane Wardlaw and Wiley Y. Daniel said.
The judges, additionally, said the board could have accomplished its goals without "conveying an explicitly religious message or performing a religious activity" by, for example, having someone read about the importance of religious diversity or pluralism.
The decision came in a lawsuit filed against the district by parents, students, employees and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group that fights for the separation of church and state.
The court said the board's practice was different from the tradition of holding a prayer to open legislative sessions because many members of the audience at board meetings were children who had little choice but to attend and were in an "unequal" relationship with the board.