Prayer in School Board Meetings

Court rules that this practice does not violate the First Amendment.

Church Law and Tax 1997-07-01

Freedom of Religion

Key Point. The first amendments nonestablishment of religion clause does not prevent all accommodations of religious practice. Prayers before meetings of governmental or public bodies are an example of a practice that has been upheld by many courts.

A federal court in Ohio ruled that a school boards practice of opening each meeting with prayer did not violate the first amendment. The administration of Cleveland’s public schools has been characterized by divisiveness and rancor among board members and superintendents for most of the past two decades. Often, meetings of the school board would be filled with so much hostility among both members and the attending public that little business was accomplished. The citizens elected several new members in 1991, and the new board president immediately announced that board meetings would “henceforth begin with prayer.” At the very next meeting, a minister recited the following prayer:

Eternal Creator of us all, we come before you this night, grateful for the new year, and a new day of hope for the education of Cleveland’s children. While we give you special thanks for the new majority, we pray for a unanimous spirit to endeavor on behalf of children who too often have small voices, and little chance without champions in this important moment. Oh God of history, remind us here, this night, that human experience proves, that if there is no reaffirmation, then there will be revolution. Enable those entrusted with the leadership of this place, to be goaded into reaffirmation. Help them to amend the rules that protect the status quo, amend the rules that enforce-while not allowing for what should be; amend the rules which draw the cameras to this place, to refocus the lens and the light on the daily human triumphs taking place in the classrooms across the City. Oh God, who offers reaffirmation in each of the voters, be in the hearts and minds of the decision makers in this place, that their choices will be acceptable in your sight, and which in all things will enable teachers to teach, and students to learn in excellent, loving, productive and positive city schools. Amen.

Since the school board began opening the public meetings with prayer, a more businesslike and professional decorum has occurred. Both members of the school board and attendees have taken on a greater respect for the process. The board has been able to undertake more business than was true in the past. Prayers have been offered by representatives of the Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faiths. In January of 1996, a minister became president of the board. Since that time, rather than recruiting someone else to offer a prayer, the president has personally offered a prayer or requested a moment of silence.

Two persons objected to the offering of prayers at the beginning of board meetings. One was a public school math teacher who stated that he avoided rising for the prayer or saying “Amen” or “in some other fashion I go out of my way to avoid full participation in the prayer.” Nevertheless, he still felt “humiliated, demeaned and physically coerced into attending and participating in these prayers.” The teacher sued the school board, seeking a court order outlawing prayer at board meetings. A federal court refused to do so, and ruled that such prayers do not violate the constitution. It began its opinion by noting that

The very week the first congress approved the bill of rights, including the establishment clause, it also enacted legislation providing for paid chaplains for the House and the Senate. That Congress included seventeen draftsmen of the Constitution. As the Supreme Court [has observed]: “Clearly the men who wrote the first amendment religion clauses did not view paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress.” Within a few days of voting to accept the Bill of Rights, the House of Representatives passed a resolution asking President George Washington to issue a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. The resolution asked the President to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” President Washington complied, and his proclamation recommended that November 26, 1789, be devoted “to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation … the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.” The tradition of an annual presidential Thanksgiving Day proclamation has carried forward to the present day. There are countless examples of government deference to religion in our history. In addition to paid chaplains for the House and Senate, the government provides chaplains for the military forces, and state legislatures have employed chaplains as well. Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are national holidays based upon religious observations. Our national motto is “In God We Trust,” and that motto appears on our currency. Meetings of public bodies often commence with the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, a pledge which includes the language “one nation under God.” Congress has directed the President to proclaim an annual National Day of Prayer. The Supreme Court and other federal courts have opened with the invocation “God save the United States and this Honorable Court” since the days of Chief Justice Marshall. Thus the nation has a tradition of “accommodation of all faiths and all forms of religious expression, and hostility toward none.”

The court then observed that in 1983 the Supreme Court ruled that it is permissible for state legislatures to hire paid chaplains to offer prayer at the beginning of legislative sessions. Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). It conceded that “a board of education is more administrative than legislative in nature,” and so the Marsh case is not directly relevant. However, it pointed out that the Supreme Court in the Marsh case did not restrict itself solely to the context of legislatures. Rather, the Court noted, “the opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”

The court concluded: “Because the prayer at issue is the prayer of a public deliberative body and occurs in a fundamentally adult atmosphere, rather than in a student or school oriented atmosphere, the case fits most closely into the Supreme Court’s Marsh analysis. As such, the practice of opening prayer does not violate the establishment clause of the Constitution ….” Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, 950 F. Supp. 1337 (N. D. Ohio 1996). [The Establishment Clause, Prayer on Public Property]

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