School District's Policy of Holding Prayers During Board Meetings Violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause

The Board of the Chino Valley Unified School District adopted a resolution providing that in order to solemnize the proceedings of the Board, it is the policy of the Board to allow for an invocation or prayer to be offered at its meetings for the benefit of the Board and the community. The resolution also provides that leaders of various congregations will be invited to offer the prayer. In addition to the opening prayer, Board members have recited and read passages from the Bible at various points during the meetings.

Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit seeking a judgment stating that Defendants' conduct of prayers, Bible readings, and proselytizing at Board meetings violate Plaintiffs' rights under the Federal constitution, and a permanent injunction prohibiting Board members from continuing to violate Plaintiffs' constitutional rights.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment provides that "congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The key issue in this case is whether a line of cases restricting prayer in public schools should apply and, therefore, the Lemon test should be applied as it was in those cases, or whether school board prayer qualifies for the legislative prayer exception. In the decision that first set out the legislative prayer exception, the Court did not apply the Lemon test. Rather, it rooted its analysis in the long history of prayer by legislative bodies in the United States.

The Court found that the only two circuit courts to address the issue of prayer at school board meetings held that the legislative exception does not apply. It noted the Third Circuit's reasoning in Indian River that although attendance at Board meetings was not mandatory for most students, it contained many of the same indicia of coercion and involuntariness that troubled the Supreme Court in school prayer cases.

For example, the Board in Indian River had a long-standing practice of recognizing student achievement at meetings, and attendance was compulsory for some students such as student government representatives. Moreover, the school board's inseparable relationship with the school increased the possibility that students would feel coerced into participating in the prayer practice. The Court found that these salient facts in Indian River were identical to the case before it, and therefore found that the legislative exception does not apply to the policy and practice of prayer in Chino Valley School Board meetings.

While Defendants argued that the Supreme Court's recent ruling in Town of Greece alters this analysis, the Court found that the decision merely extended the legislative exception from the statehouse to town halls. Moreover, the Court concluded that Town of Greece further supports the notion that the legislative exception is limited to houses of governance in the world of mature adults, as the Supreme Court repeatedly emphasized that the audience impacted is composed of adults, firm in their own beliefs.

Because this case is controlled by the school prayer cases, the Court went on to apply the Lemon test to determine whether the Board's prayer policy violates the Establishment Clause. Under Lemon, as modified by later cases, the court must determine (1) whether the government practice has a secular purpose; and (2) whether the challenged governmental practice has the effect of endorsing religion.

The Court first found that while the Board's Resolution states that its purpose is to solemnify the proceedings of the Board, the statements of Board members cast serious doubt on the sincerity of the Board's articulated secular purpose. For example, one Board member told the audience, "…I think there are very few districts of that powerfulness of having a board such as ourselves having a goal. And that one goal is under God, Jesus Christ." The Court therefore found that the Resolution fails to satisfy the first prong of the Lemon test.

Under the second prong of the Lemon test, the question is whether the government action could be reasonably construed as sending primarily a message of either endorsement or disapproval of religion. The Court found that it is clear the Board uses its Resolution to bring sectarian prayer and proselytization into public schools through the back door. Because it conveys the message of government endorsement of Christianity in the public school system, it fails the Lemon test and therefore violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Further, the Court found that the Board's practice of praying, reading from the Bible, and proselytizing religious messages after the opening prayer also violates the Establishment Clause. It reasoned that the Board cannot achieve outside of the Board Resolution what it cannot achieve through it.

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education (Feb. 18, 2016, EDCV 14-2336).