Friday, August 05, 2011

3rd Circuit: School Board Prayer Governed By School Prayer Tests, Not By Test For Legislative Invocations

In Doe v. Indian River School District, (3d Cir., Aug. 5, 2011), the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals held that the test for whether prayers opening school board meetings violate the Establishment Clause is the test used for prayer at school events (Lee v. Weisman) , not the test for when invocations are permitted in legislative bodies  (Marsh v. Chambers). The Indian River, Delaware, school board routinely opened its meetings with a prayer offered by one of the board members, on a rotating basis. The prayers that were delivered were almost always Christian in their orientation. The court held that since students almost always attend Board meetings, either to receive awards or as part of their extracurricular activities or to comment on school policies, these meetings are analogous to graduation ceremonies which, while not technically mandatory, nevertheless result in students feeling coerced into participating in religious exercises. The court then found that the Board's prayer policy has the primary effect of advancing religion and involves excessive entanglement of government with religion. Board members are government actors composing and delivering prayers.  The Wilmington News Journal reports on the decision. (See prior related posting.)