Supreme Court Allows Prayer at Public Meetings – What Does It Mean for Schools?

By now, you likely have heard or read about this week’s United States Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of prayer at public meetings.  The decision itself should not be all that surprising, and really does not represent any kind of change – one way or another – in the Constitutional analysis of public prayer.

More than 30 years ago, in Marsh v. Chambers, the United States Supreme Court held that it was not unconstitutional to use taxpayer money to hire sectarian chaplains to offer ceremonial prayers at the opening of state legislative sessions.  The Court noted that ceremonial prayers at the opening of a legislative body’s meetings had been used since the nation’s founding (at the same time the Constitution was written and first implemented) to solemnize these meetings.  The case has been used to uphold prayers at local municipal government meetings as well.

So that means school boards, as local legislative bodies, can open meetings with prayer as well, right?  No necessarily.

For the last few years, courts have had to address the question of whether prayers at the opening of a school board meeting should be considered like other legislative body prayers or like school context prayers, which generally are not permitted when authored or at least sanctioned by the school itself.  The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Pennsylvania, where we are located, answered this question in Doe v. Indian River School District.  The Court concluded that because students may be likely to attend school board meetings, these prayers were more like school prayers than like other legislative prayers.  As a result, they held the prayers were unconstitutional.

Unless or until the US Supreme Court holds otherwise, the Third Circuit decision in Doe v. Indian River is final and binding on Pennsylvania School Districts.  This week’s decision will not be likely to limit it.

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