A federal judge in Delaware ruled Monday that it is constitutional for the Indian River School Board to open its meetings with Christian prayers, a ruling that could broaden what's allowed at school board meetings throughout the state.
In a 57-page opinion dated Sunday but not made public until late Monday, District Judge Joseph J. Farnan Jr. threw out a lawsuit brought by "Jane and John Doe" against the Sussex County school district that charged the board's practice violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
Farnan found that the elected school board is closer to a legislative body than a school, and therefore a prayer is permissible.
"Although reasonable people can differ as to whether the board's policy is wise, could be more inclusive or is actually necessary to solemnize board meetings, 'too much judicial fine-tuning of legislative prayer policies risks unwarranted interference in [a legislative body],' " Farnan wrote.
The judge concluded that the Indian River School Board did not use its prayer policy "to proselytize or advance religion," so he believed that the court "may not demand anything further" of the board.
Attorney Thomas J. Allingham II, who represents the Doe plaintiffs, said his clients were disappointed by this long-awaited ruling. "But we fully expect to appeal the decision to the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, and we continue to believe in the merits of our challenges to the board's prayer practices."
Indian River School Board member Reginald Helms and the district's attorney see the ruling as vindication.
"It was a long time coming. I guess in these types of cases, they take their time," Helms said. "It is good news for the district and, I guess, for public bodies everywhere."
The school district's attorney, Jason P. Gosselin, said late Monday he hadn't yet had a chance to thoroughly review the decision but said he was "definitely pleased" with the outcome.
The lawsuit was first filed in 2005 by two Jewish families, "Jane and John Doe," parents of a child in the school district, and by Mona and Marco Dobrich, whose child had just graduated from the district, alleging that the school board and the district were promoting Christianity.
The lawsuit charged the district created "an environment of religious exclusion" through the use of often explicitly Christian prayers at school board meetings, athletic events, banquets and graduation services. The federal civil suit also charged that students involved in Christian religious groups received preferential treatment, one district teacher told his class there is "only one true religion" and a science teacher told her class she did not believe in the big bang theory and then encouraged students to attend the Bible club to learn more.
The Dobriches claimed they were harassed and felt they had no choice but to file a lawsuit after Mona Dobrich complained about a Christian prayer offered at her daughter's June 2004 graduation. She said abuse and harassment increased after the lawsuit was filed.
In part because of fears of harassment, Farnan allowed the second family in the lawsuit to remain anonymous.
A year ago, the district settled the bulk of the lawsuit relating to its schools and school activities. The district made an undisclosed payment to the families, promised not to promote a specific religion and adopted new policies the plaintiffs helped draft encouraging tolerance. The district also instituted new procedures to handle complaints about diversity issues.
The settlement intentionally left out the issue of the school board praying before its meetings so it could be decided separately.
The Dobrich family, which has moved out of the district, withdrew from the suit.
Attorney Thomas Neuberger, who helped craft the board's prayer policy, called Farnan's ruling a significant victory.
"We are elated that the judge has upheld the policy that we (the Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil rights organization) wrote as constitutional. We are elated that the efforts of the [American Civil Liberties Union] to bully this small school board have been defeated," he said.
Neuberger, who at one point represented board member Helms until board members were dismissed as individual defendants, said he will be participating in any appeal to help defend the prayer policy.
Neuberger said Farnan's ruling spoke "eloquently and clearly on what the law allows" and goes against other court rulings in similar cases across the country, meaning the Indian River prayer policies have the potential to become a national model.
Drewry Fennell, executive director of the Delaware American Civil Liberties Union, which helped the two families find legal representation for the lawsuit, said contrary to Neuberger's assertion, the lawsuit was designed to protect "the little guys," the two families, against the oppression of the majority.
"I'm disappointed in the result, because the school board represents the ultimate authority over schoolchildren. And their actions should not make any child feel unwelcome," she said. "The point of the Bill of Rights is to protect those who are not in the majority, and this is never more important than when we are talking about children."
Fennell said it was hard to reconcile the cold, dispassionate court opinion with the reality of the hostility the two families faced in the community.
"It was not a dispassionate time for this community and to pretend otherwise doesn't accurately reflect what happened," she said.