San Francisco, California, USA : The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on Wednesday that Chino Valley school board meetings, which are open to the public and include student attendees, may not include prayers or other religious exercises.
The Chino Valley school board argued that its prayer policy fell under the legislative-prayer tradition and would therefore not violate the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the establishment of religion by the government. The legislative-prayer tradition allows for prayers to open legislative sessions when the audience “consists of ‘mature adults’ who during the prayer are ‘free to enter and leave with little comment and for any number of reasons.’” However, the Ninth Circuit found that “[t]he audience and timing of the prayers, as well as the religious preaching at the Board meetings, diverge from the legislative-prayer tradition,” and concluded that the exception did not apply.
Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit found that the prayer policy at the Chino Valley school board meetings violated the Establishment Clause. As a result, the school board will no longer be allowed to endorse school-sponsored prayer in meetings.
In its appeal, the Chino Valley Unified School District board argued that it was covered by an exception for traditional prayer at the start of state legislatures, Congress and town hall meetings.
The 9th Circuit disagreed, noting that the school board meetings include children and teenagers who are more vulnerable than adults to outside influence and who have been obligated to attend to give presentations, perform or receive awards.
“These prayers typically take place before groups of schoolchildren whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the board, is not one of full parity,” the court said in an unsigned decision.
Unlike sessions of Congress, state legislatures and town boards, the Chino Valley school board meetings “function as extensions of the educational experience of the district’s public schools,” the 9th Circuit said.
Two other federal appeals courts have previously ruled that prayer was off-limits for school board meetings. Another circuit allowed it, but in that case there was no student on the board. Chino Valley’s board had a student member.
The board defended its opening prayer as a sign of respect for religious diversity.
But the court said the board’s list of congregations that could be invited excluded several religions.
Roughly 2% of California’s population is Buddhist, 2% Jewish, 1% Mormon and 1% Orthodox Christian, and none of those religions were included on the board’s list, the court said.
The court also noted that atheists and agnostics comprise 4% to 5% of the state’s population.
A group called Freedom from Religion Foundation Inc. sued the San Bernardino County school district, charging that in addition to the opening prayer, board members read from Christian Scripture at various times.
At a meeting in January 2014, a board member urged everyone “who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find him.” At another meeting that year, another board member thanked God “for sending his son Jesus Christ so our sins would be forgiven.”
Wednesday’s decision was made by 9th Circuit Judges M. Margaret McKeown and Kim McLane Wardlaw and Colorado Dist. Judge Wiley Y. Daniel, all appointees of President Clinton.
The court based its decision on the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“The Establishment Clause, grounded in experiences of persecution, affirms the fundamental truth that no matter what an individual’s religious beliefs, he has a valued place in the political community,” the 9th Circuit said.