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School Board Allowed To Pray Before Meetings

An appeals court has ruled that a Texas school district can begin its school board meetings with a prayer without violating the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on a government establishment of religion.

The case involved Birdville Independent School District and the American Humanist Association, according to Reuters.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 in favor of the school board, which has begun its meetings with a prayer said by students since 1997.

Isaiah Smith, a former Birdville High School Student, who was also part of the lawsuit, said he was not against prayer. However, he felt it had no place in school-related activities.

"I have been treated awful growing up," Smith told CBS in February. "I started being vocal about my rights because I got tired of being discriminated against."

Circuit Judge Jerry Smith ruled that the prayers were legislative prayers because the board was "more like a legislature" than a school activity.

"Most attendees at school-board meetings, including Smith, are mature adults," the judge argued, adding that the "polite" requests from board members to stand for the prayer "do not coerce prayer," Reuters reported.

Judge Smith also overturned a lower court decision that had denied "qualified immunity" to school board members, dismissing the case against them.

In its suit against the school district, the American Humanist Association stated that the prayers were school-endorsed activities and violated the First Amendment.

Hiram Sasser of the Liberty Institute defended the school board when the suit was first filed.

"Governments are allowed to open their meetings with prayer," said Sasser, according to CBS. "We've been doing it for 200 years and the United States Supreme Court has said, on two different occasions, it's perfectly legal."

But Isaiah Smith challenged this, saying the school board handpicked students to ensure only Christian prayers were delivered. The ruling allowing the prayers described by Sasser said such prayers could not "denigrate non-believers or religious minorities."

"They openly endorse Christianity over other religions and over non-religion," added Smith. "It made me feel left out. It also made me feel uncomfortable."

The Birdville Independent School District described the ruling as a "complete vindication."

"The decision is reassuring because these trustees are elected and serve without compensation, and the possibility that they might be personally liable for damages would be somewhat daunting," a defense attorney told Reuters.

Monica Miller, an attorney for the AHA, said she was reviewing the options, which could include asking the appeals court to review the case.

Sources: Reuters, CBSDFW / Photo credit: American Humanist Association/Wikimedia Commons

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