A federal appeals court ruled Monday that students can continue to lead prayers at Birdville school district board meetings, a practice that was challenged by a former student who said the prayers made him feel “violated and uncomfortable.”
A three-judge panel with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans found that the prayers fell under an exception that allows legislative bodies to conduct prayers in government buildings.
A school board’s tasks are “undeniably legislative,” the ruling said.
Isaiah Smith, a 2014 Birdville High School graduate and a member of the American Humanist Association, sued the school district 2015.
Since 1997, Smith’s lawsuit said, the school district has allowed two students to open board meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance and a short statement, oftentimes a prayer.
Smith argued that the student-led prayers, most of which included references to Jesus and Christ, were the school district “endorsing particular religious ideology over his and all others, as well as religion over non-religion.”
U.S. District Judge John McBryde in Fort Worth ruled in the school district’s favor in August, citing the legislative prayer exception.
In its ruling Monday, the 5th Circuit panel acknowledged that Birdville school board members have asked the audience to stand for the prayers.
“Those polite requests, however, do not coerce prayer,” the ruling said.
The ruling referenced both times the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of legislative bodies conducting prayers, in 1983 and 2014.
In the 1983 case — a lawsuit against the Nebraska legislature for opening sessions with a chaplain’s prayer — the court ruled that opening legislative sessions with prayer “is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
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