Prayers can continue at Texas school board meetings after US Supreme Court declines to hear case

Prayers at a Dallas area school district’s Board of Trustees meetings can continue.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case filed by the American Humanist Association (AHA) against the Birdville Independent School District, challenging their practice of having a student lead a prayer before meetings. This leaves a lower court’s ruling in place in favor of the prayers.

The AHA called the prayers unfair and inappropriate.

“The Court’s decision disregards the serious coercion students face when a prayer is recited in a school-controlled environment with teachers and administrators watching and participating,” Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said in a statement.

“I’m very pleased. Although I felt confident that was likely to be the result,” said attorney Craig Wood, who represented the school district.

Wood believed the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers, which ruled the Nebraska legislature could open their session with a prayer, would also allow the district to open with a prayer at their meetings.

“Prayer is a legitimate expression. Certainly it’s not prohibited by the First Amendment but protected,” said Wood.

Technically, the prayer isn’t necessarily a prayer. Students come before the board before the meeting to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and for the “opportunity for student expression”. What’s said in the expression is up to the student.

“It’s your speech. Whatever they decide to do. Some pray, some share anecdotes,” said Wood.

At a recent board meeting on November 16th, the student expression made no mention of God and asked people to be grateful for district staff on Thanksgiving. However, the student did say they should be blessed.

On October 26th, the student expression discussed her love for artist Pablo Picasso. Another student had a moment of silence for Hurricane Harvey victims and 9/11 victims during September’s board meeting.

Fox News found that the last time a student’s expression resembled a prayer was March 23, 2017, when a student told the board how lucky he was to be a part of the district and asked God to bless them.

While the student is giving their expression, a disclaimer is put on a screen at the front of the room stating, “The student speaking at the board meeting was chosen based on neutral criteria to deliver messages based on the student’s own choices. The content of the speaker’s message is the private expression of the individual student and does not reflect any position or expression of the district.”

The student expression used to be called the student invocation. The district changed the name after AHA told the district the practice of having kids pray before a meeting was inappropriate.

When the plaintiff, Isaiah Smith, was a student at Birdville, he said he noticed the school had what he called a history of engaging in unconstitutional activities.

“They are a religious school, but they should be a secular school. They shouldn’t be supporting religion over non-religion,” said Smith. “They should just be worrying about educating their students.”

Smith also claimed that the school district changed the name to expression, students were chosen specifically to make Christian prayers.

That change from invocation to expression wasn’t good enough for AHA. They sued and claimed that the district was violating the establishment clause by allowing prayer.

“This is not even governmental speech, it’s student speech. It’s just their right of free expression,” said Wood.

They case began in the Northern District of Texas, which ruled in favor of the district. They appealed to the 5th circuit, which also ruled in favor of the district. The Supreme Court declined to hear another appeal.

“I’m very saddened and disappointed by that decision but we’re looking to move forward and keep on fighting for the constitution and the principals of the constitution,” said Smith.