ALEXANDRIA, La. — School boards in several Louisiana parishes opened their meetings with public prayers this week, one notable exception being the Tangipahoa Parish board in Amite, which had lost a court case on the issue and therefore prayed privately in an anteroom before starting its meeting.
Other boards prayed in pointed defiance of U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan's ruling in the Tangipahoa Parish case that school boards, unlike other deliberative governing bodies, violate the First Amendment stricture on government-established religion when they open meetings with prayers.
"We just wanted to let the people know that we are in agreement that we stand by the issue of trying to keep the prayer to begin the meetings," Terrebonne Parish School Board President Clark Bonvillain said March 1 when that board prayed before its meeting.
Public prayers also were said at school board meetings in Caddo, Bossier and DeSoto parishes.
Berrigan ruled on Feb. 25 in a lawsuit brought by an unidentified Tangipahoa Parish parent. The American Civil Liberties Union aided the parent with the lawsuit and Louisiana ACLU director Joe Cook said this week the organization would step in if asked if there are similar complaints in other parishes.
Opposition to the ruling came swiftly — Gov. Kathleen Blanco weighed in against it on Feb. 27 and the number of public officials criticizing it has grown.
Tangipahoa Parish board members voted to appeal Berrigan's ruling. Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti has joined with Blanco in a plan to file friend-of-the-court briefs in support of prayer before school board meetings, said Terry Ryder, the governor's executive counsel.
Tangipahoa officials, meanwhile, are questioning Berrigan's impartiality, noting that she is a past president of the Louisiana ACLU. "I feel personally that it could well be a conflict of interest," said Superintendent Louis Joseph, who said he would make the alleged conflict part of the appeal.
Berrigan led the state ACLU before becoming a federal judge 11 years ago.
Berrigan told WWL television: "I hope people will read the entire opinion before making comments."
Coincidentally, Berrigan ruled less than a week before the annual convention of the Louisiana School Boards Association, which begins today in Alexandria. LSBA director Freddie Whitford said he expected the issue to be discussed at a workshop on school issues. To meet later in the day was the resolutions committee, where the issue could arise again.
Blanco addresses the association tomorrow.
Berrigan acknowledged in her Feb. 25 ruling that courts had long allowed deliberative governmental bodies, such as Congress and state legislatures, to open meetings with prayers, and that the first Congress authorized the appointment of paid chaplains to offer invocations at congressional sessions three days before adopting the First Amendment's establishment clause, which says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
School boards, however, are different, Berrigan said.
School-sponsored prayers in classes or at other school functions have been prohibited by federal courts as a violation of First Amendment guarantees against government-established religion. She touched on the vulnerability of students who are not religious or who belong to a minority religion to peer pressure or intimidation from other students. And, she said, school boards are integral parts of school systems, setting policy, overseeing operations and sometimes involving students in board meetings.
Berrigan drew heavily from a ruling in an Ohio case by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Opponents of her ruling are hoping for a different result from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.