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Christian Prayer at Delaware School Board Meetings is Wrong

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A Delaware school board’s practice of opening its meetings with Christian prayers violates the constitutional separation of church and state, seven religious and civil liberties groups have told a federal appeals court.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed with the 3rd U.S. Circuit of Appeals yesterday says a federal district judge got it wrong when he ruled in favor of sectarian invocations before meetings of the Indian River School District’s board.

Groups signing the brief include Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Delaware, People For the American Way Foundation, the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Hindu American Foundation.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said public school boards have a responsibility to obey the Constitution and respect diversity. 

“Public school boards,” said Lynn, “serve students of many different faiths and some with no religious affiliation at all. School board meetings, which are often attended by students, should not feature invocations that leave some students out.”

A federal district court upheld the school board’s prayer policy, noting that the Supreme Court in its 1983 Marsh v. Chambers decision allowed Congress and state legislatures to open their meetings with prayer.

But the seven organizations said the Marsh ruling does not apply to school boards. Public schools serve impressionable children, the groups say, and the high court has repeatedly barred school-sponsored efforts to pressure students to pray.

Even if Marsh did apply to school boards, the brief argues, the Indian River school board policy would still be unconstitutional because the prayers are sectarian. The high court’s 1983 decision focused on nonsectarian invocations before the Nebraska legislature.

The friend-of-the-court brief in Doe v. Indian River School District was written by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and attorney Michael A. Blank, in consultation with Dan Mach and Heather Weaver of the ACLU.


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