Appeals Court Strikes Down Prayers At Delaware School Board Meetings

A federal appeals court in August ruled that a Delaware school board’s practice of opening its meetings with mostly Christian prayers violates the separation of church and state.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the prayer practice of the Indian River School Board, which has been opening its meetings with prayers since the district was formed in 1969.

The court found that students often attend board meetings and, in some cases, are required to attend. They should not be compelled to take part in worship, said the court.

“The First Amendment does not require students to give up their right to participate in their educational system or be rewarded for their school-related achievements as a price for dissenting from a state-sponsored religious practice,” observed the court.

The case was brought by an anonymous plaintiff referred to in court papers as Jane Doe. Doe, who frequently attended school board meetings, said she was offended by the constant use of Christian prayers, which she interpreted as an attempt to intimidate members of other faith traditions.

“I felt it was really being used wrongly, that there was not a very religious spirit behind the prayer,” Doe told Delmarvanow.com.

Members of the board criticized the ruling and vowed to appeal.

“I think we are doing everything we are allowed to do within the law,” said Charles M. Bireley, board president.

Nearly all of the board meetings have included Christian prayers. On a few occasions, moments of silence were offered.

During the court proceedings, board members were asked about the prayer practice. One member, Nina Lou Bunting, said during a deposition, “I could not give what I call a non-sectarian prayer, because I would have to mention Jesus Christ in my prayer.”

The ACLU of Delaware, which sponsored the Doe v. Indian River School District case, hailed the decision. Executive Director Kathleen MacRae said the ruling states “very clearly that a government body, such as a school board, cannot show preference for one faith above all others.”

Americans United, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on Doe’s side, also celebrated the outcome.

“This important ruling reminds public school officials that they have no right to meddle in religious matters,” said AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. “Students, their families and others should be able to attend school board meetings without feeling pressured to join in prayer.”

In late August, the board voted unanimously to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.