Appeals Court Says Texas School Board Can Begin Meetings With Prayer, Rejects Atheists' Suit

(Photo: Flickr Commons/Joe Gratz)

A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against an atheist group's lawsuit seeking to end a school district's policy of allowing student-led prayers at their monthly board meetings.

The panel unanimously affirmed a lower court decision on Monday in favor of the Birdville Independent School District and its seven-member board in a lawsuit brought by the American Humanist Association.

Expand | Collapse
Photo: Facebook/Isaiah Smith Campaign)Isaiah Smith, 18-year-old senior at Birdville Independent School District in Texas, claims his First Amendment rights were violated when his school suspended him for tearing up pages of a bible during class.

Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith authored the opinion, arguing it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"Because the practice falls more nearly within the recently reaffirmed legislative-prayer exception to the Supreme Court's Establishment Clause jurisprudence, we affirm the summary judgment in favor of the school district and, in the accompanying consolidated appeal, we reverse and render on the denial of qualified immunity to the school board members," wrote Smith.

"Although it is possible to imagine a school-board student-expression practice that offends the Establishment Clause, this one, under its specific facts, does not."

As part of the panel's opinion, Smith referenced the 2014 United States Supreme Court decision Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the high court ruled 5-4 that Town of Greece, located in New York, could hold explicitly Christian prayers before their monthly town meetings.

"The BISD board is a deliberative body, charged with overseeing the district's public schools, adopting budgets, collecting taxes, conducting elections, issuing bonds, and other tasks that are undeniably legislative ... In no respect is it less a deliberative legislative body than was the town board in Galloway," noted Smith in Monday's decision.

In May 2015, the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit against Birdville ISD and its school board on behalf of a former student named Isaiah Smith.

At issue was the school board's policy of allowing students to give one-minute prayers or other statements at their monthly board meetings.

"According to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of a former student, Isaiah Smith, the school board has had a longstanding policy of choosing students to offer Christian prayers at the beginning of public school board meetings," stated the AHA in 2015.

"Smith claims that the prayers made him feel unwelcome at the public meetings and that the school board endorsed Christianity. Students and teachers also regularly attend the meetings."

Regarding Monday's decision, Monica Miller, senior counsel at the AHA's Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said in a statement released Wednesday that she took issue with the ruling.

"The panel's ruling is unprecedented and directly conflicts with precedent from the other appeals courts that have addressed this issue," stated Miller.

"More importantly, the panel's ruling contravenes binding Supreme Court precedent, which requires lower courts to distinguish public school students from adults, and apply heightened scrutiny to protect freedom of conscience from even subtle coercive pressures."

According to a press release, the AHA intends to seek a rehearing on the case.

Follow Michael Gryboski on Twitter or Facebook