District ‘vindicated’ after Supreme Court declines to hear student-led prayer case

Darrell Brown, superintendent of Birdville schools, said the district has been “vindicated” in a legal fight over student-led prayers at school board meetings.
Darrell Brown, superintendent of Birdville schools, said the district has been “vindicated” in a legal fight over student-led prayers at school board meetings. Star-Telegram archives

Birdville schools Superintendent Darrell Brown said the district has been “vindicated” in its legal fight to support student-led prayers at board meetings.

“The speeches given by students at the board meetings are their own — not something they are told to say,” Brown said in a statement issued Monday. “Occasionally, students will open the meeting with a prayer. We believe the students have the right to express themselves in this manner if they choose.”

Brown’s statement came hours after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear the case.

That leaves in place a ruling from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which found that the prayers fell under an exception that allows legislative bodies to conduct prayers in government buildings.

This legal fight began when Isaiah Smith, a 2014 Birdville High School graduate and a member of the American Humanist Association, sued the school district in 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 has said the prayers made him feel “violated and uncomfortable.” On Wednesday, Smith told the Star-Telegram in a statement that he is disappointed that the Supreme Court didn’t hear the case.

Smith said he still believes the district has overstepped the Constitution by selecting students for the student-led prayers.

“Students and school district officials go to public school events for official school business and not to go to church,” Smith said in an email. “While the United States Supreme Court did not hear our case, we will not lose faith or stop fighting for the Constitution and its principles being enforced and abided by.”

Smith questioned how religion is blended into baccalaureate ceremonies and school assemblies, religious symbols are allowed in classrooms and students fear suspension when they choose not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The American Humanist Association expressed disappointment that the Supreme Court didn’t review what it called Birdville’s “practice of subjecting its students to prayers at school board meetings.”

“This is the end of the road for this case,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel for the American Humanist Association.

Miller said the issue of prayers at school board meetings is central to another federal case, out of California. In that case, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the Chino Valley Unified District Board of Education.

Smith had 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.”

Brown said in his statement that “in the face of litigation filed against the district and each of its trustees, Birdville Independent School District’s trustees believed it was important to fight to ensure the application of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in a way that was legal, equitable, and defensible.”

District Judge John H. McBryde in Fort Worth, the 5th Circuit Court and the Supreme Court affirmed the district’s position, Brown said.

This report contains material from The Associated Press and the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1