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Louisiana school board can't open sessions with prayer

By The Associated Press
02.28.05

NEW ORLEANS — Congress and legislative bodies can open their sessions with prayers but school boards do not have the same leeway, a federal judge ruled late last week in a lawsuit filed by a parent against a southeast Louisiana school system.

U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan on Feb. 25 said in her 25-page opinion that courts have long allowed deliberative governmental bodies to open meetings with prayers. School boards, however, are different, Berrigan said.

Berrigan noted that school-sponsored prayers in classes or at other school functions have long been prohibited by federal courts as a violation of First Amendment guarantees against government-established religion. And, she said, school boards are integral parts of school systems: They set policy and oversee operations and sometimes involve students in board meetings.

“In officially promoting a religious practice at its governmental meetings, the board is doing what its schools and teachers cannot do, favor religion over nonrelgion and endorse particular religious faiths,” Berrigan wrote.

School children whose faiths are different from the majority of those around them are vulnerable to peer pressure and feelings of isolation, Berrigan wrote. “Even without student participation, the board’s policy of opening with prayer is an endorsement of religion which undermines the promise made by the Establishment Clause to public school students of all faiths, or no faith, that their schools will remain neutral with respect to the highly personal and private matter of religious belief,” she wrote.

Berrigan drew heavily from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 1999 ruling in Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, which reversed a decision that said the prayer was permissible because it was similar to opening a state legislative session with prayer.

Chris Moody, a lawyer for the school board, said no firm decision had been made on an appeal, but that one was likely. An appeal would go to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which might rule differently than the 6th Circuit. He noted a past 5th Circuit ruling that allowed prayer at graduation ceremonies.

In the meantime, he said, the school board would have to comply with Berrigan’s ruling.

Yesterday, Gov. Kathleen Blanco released a statement that said she “could not disagree more with this ruling.” She called on the school board to appeal and said she was asking her executive counsel to explore the possibility of filing a friend-of-the court brief in support of the board and its prayers.

“I believe that such prayers are entirely appropriate, constitutional and in keeping with a practice in our nation that dates back to the Continental Congress,” the governor said. “Although I disagree with other court rulings that have greatly curtailed prayer in our public schools, this ruling makes it illegal to what the Louisiana Legislature and the U.S. Congress do every day — ask for God’s blessing and guidance during their deliberations.”

The decision was the latest development in a years-long legal battle over prayer at school functions in Tangipahoa. The lawsuit, filed by a parent identified as John Doe on behalf of his children James and Jack Doe, originally included objections to prayers at Loranger High School football games. However, that portion of the lawsuit was settled last year, and prayers were dropped at games and other school events.

“The court’s well reasoned opinion recognizes the ACLU’s arguments that parents, children and members of the community should not have to pay the price of religious indoctrination to attend a school board meeting,” Joe Cook, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said in a news release. The ACLU represented the parent in court.


Update
Louisiana school boards pray, defying ruling
Tangipahoa Parish board, which lost court ruling, forgoes public prayer to begin meeting, but other boards pray in protest. 03.03.05

Previous
Louisiana school board drops prayers before games, events
Tangipahoa Parish officials settle part of lawsuit; still to be decided is issue of prayers at school board meetings. 08.25.04

Related

Appeals court won't rehear decision barring prayer at school board meetings

Majority says school board officials cannot constitutionally ask others to join in praise of divine entity. 06.17.99

5th Circuit studies prayer at school board meetings
During oral arguments, judges ask pointed questions of attorneys on both sides of Louisiana dispute. 02.09.06

Legislative prayer

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