Congressional Support for School Prayer
Federal support for prayer at school board meetings has been introduced through resolutions in both the House and the Senate.(1 & 2) The resolutions make no attempt to hide that there is no secular purpose for school board meeting prayer, instead stating that "voluntary prayer acknowledges beliefs widely held among the people of the Nation." Neither the Constitution nor the courts have ever said the government is free to endorse a religion as long as it's the most popular religion. In fact, "indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion" was explicitly declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court when they struck down classroom prayer fifty years ago. (3)
Inaccurate and illegal justifications for school board prayer aside, the constitutionality of it hangs on the question of whether a school board meeting is more like a school-sponsored activity or a legislative session. This is an important legal distinction because religious intervention is prohibited at school-sponsored activity, while prayer opening legislative sessions does not always violate the Establishment Clause. (A bigger problem for another post)
The Supreme Court handles religious activity in schools differently because of the unique elements of the public school setting. Students are young, impressionable, and required to attend.(4) Additionally, public schools are particularly important to the maintenance of a democratic, pluralistic society. While the principle of separation of church and state, when applied to the public school setting, does not trample the religious freedoms of students, it does require that school officials refrain from any activity that promotes or endorses religion, including prayer.
The Supreme Court found prayers will unquestionably be perceived by students as endorsed by the school when they occur on school property, by a speaker representing the school, during school-sponsored events.(5) School board meetings are held on property own by the school district and school board members are school officials. They are school-sponsored events because actions taken by the school board, such as discipline or recognition of students or changes to school policies, are based upon and directly affect activities that occur exclusively in the public school setting. Prayers at school board meetings will be perceived by students as endorsed by the school and are prohibited.
The Congressional resolutions argue prayer should be allowed because a school board is more like a legislative body. The resolutions state that like legislative bodies, school boards hold sessions open to the public, their nature is not altered by the presence of students, and they enact policies that are given the force of law. Although these meetings are open to the public, their focus is not on regulating the public, but solely on school-related matters. Their proceedings are materially altered by the presence of students who wish to participate in the discussion of school-related matters. School board policies are direct communications to students to be enforced exclusively by school officials, not by or for the public.
Opening a school board meeting with prayer has no purpose other than conveying the public school system's endorsement of religion. It is disturbing that both sides of Congress focused their precious time and resources to support an unconstitutional practice. Symbolic government actions in support of religion seem a lesser threat than other secular issues, but each one adds evidence to the false history that we are a Christian nation, which is why we must call them out every time.
(1) H. Res. 662
(2) S. Res 18
(3) Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962).
(4) People of Ill. ex rel. McCollum v. Bd. of Educ. of Sch. Dist. No. 71, 33 U.S. 203 (1948).
(5) Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 120 S.Ct. 2266 (2000)
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