ACLU of Ohio Wins Cleveland School Board Prayer Case

March 18, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, March 18, 1999

CLEVELAND–In a major victory for religious liberty, the United States Court of Appeals today overturned a lower court ruling which had permitted the Cleveland Board of Education to begin meetings with a Christian prayer.

In a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting in Cincinnati, overturned the opinion of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education.

The case began in 1992, when Sarah Coles, then a student at John Adams High School in Cleveland, appeared at a school board meeting to receive an academic award. Shocked by the openly sectarian prayer with which the meeting began, Ms. Coles, together with teacher Gene Tracy, brought suit to challenge the policy of beginning meetings with prayer.

But U.S. District Judge David Dowd ruled against Coles and Tracy, finding the policy supported by a long history of public prayer, including the official prayers which mark many legislative meetings. Noting the deep connection between school board meetings and public education, the Court of Appeals today reversed Judge Dowd’s decision, and ordered judgment in favor of Coles and Tracy.

Writing for the majority, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ronald Lee Gilman found the case “clearly implicated” the principal of separation between church and state, improperly “introduc[ing] and exhort[ing] religion in the school system,” all in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

ACLU of Ohio Volunteer Attorney Joshua Cohen, who represents Coles and Tracy, praised the decision for its wisdom. “We are extremely gratified by this decision. No arm of the government should be telling people when, where or how to pray.”

“The Sixth Circuit has now ensured that the citizens of Cleveland will not have to sacrifice their religious sensibilities and freedom of conscience in order to attend a School Board meeting,” Cohen added.

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