A Louisiana school district that has been riddled with religious lawsuits got some backing Wednesday after a panel of judges overturned a decision that had formerly barred them from opening their meetings with prayer.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that the Tangipahoa Parish School Board – which has had five religious-related lawsuits brought against it in the past 13 years – could not be held accountable for an "offended observer" and has the right to have voluntary prayer at their meetings.
According to attorneys from the faith-based legal group Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), the decision severely undercuts the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has been filing the suits, in their use of the Establishment Clause.
"The court today has delivered a serious blow to the ACLU by affirming that the far left can no longer bully its way into court without any proven, concrete injury," explained ADF senior legal counsel Mike Johnson in a statement. Johnson presented the oral argument on behalf of the school board defendants on May 22.
"Simply claiming that one is 'offended' by religious speech or symbols is not enough to spark a federal case," he added.
For several decades, the Louisiana school board has opened all their meetings with prayer. But in October 2003, the ACLU sued the board on behalf of an anonymous plaintiff, claiming that the practice offended him.
After it went to trial, a decision was made in February 2005 by federal district court judge Ginger Berrigan, who also happened to be a former state president of the ACLU. In the ruling, she called for the board to permanently cease the prayers, because she argued that it was violating the plaintiff's rights under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Following the situation, attorneys from ADF and their co-counsel from the law firm Adams and Reese filed an appeal, and the court granted their request.
After looking over the case, the 5th Circuit judges decided to overturn the district court's opinion, with a majority statement explaining that it "spares this court from issuing a largely hypothetically-based ruling on issues of broad importance to deliberative public bodies in this circuit and beyond."
The board members will now be able to resume their prayers at meetings.
"The practice of opening public meetings with prayer is and always has been lawful and appropriate," added Johnson. "The Constitution does not ban citizens or elected officials from invoking divine guidance and blessings upon our public work."
Other lawsuits that ACLU attorneys have brought up against the Tangipahoa Parish School Board include allowing the evangelical group Gideons International to hand out Bibles during school hours and allowing a "pizza preacher" who distributes pizza and teaches Christianity during lunch.