ACLU Asks Virginia School Boards Not to Open Meetings with Prayer

October 1, 1999

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

RICHMOND, VA -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today sent a letter to Virginia's public school boards asking them to refrain from their meetings with prayer in light of a recent court decision declaring the practice unconstitutional.

The ACLU's letter not only asks schools to follow the recent Sixth Circuit Court ruling, but suggests that people of different faiths who attend the school board meetings may be offended by the prayers.

"Sectarian prayers may have a strongly divisive effect on meeting participants by elevating the faith to which some participants adhere, while implying that other faiths are less important," the ACLU said in its letter. "Some may argue that prayers bring people together, but in Virginia at this time, they are increasingly likely to drive people apart."

In the case at issue, Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that school board meetings should be governed by the same guidelines for religious activity that apply to in-school functions.

The Court said that because school board members are school officials, because meetings are often held on school property, and because students are in attendance, the boards must refrain from taking any action, including praying, that would appear to endorse or promote religion.

Until this recent decision, many legal experts assumed that a 1983 Supreme Court decision holding that the Nebraska legislature could open its sessions with a prayer applied to school board meetings.

The high court's reasoning in the Nebraska decision relied largely on historical precedent, noting that Congress has always opened with a prayer. This rationale was extended to local governing bodies, such as boards of supervisors and city councils, but until now it was never clear whether or not it applied to schools boards.

The Coles decision says it does not.

"School boards in Virginia are not technically required to abide by the Sixth Circuit's decision," said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. "However, the case is so persuasively written that we are hoping school board members in Virginia will read it and voluntarily decide not to engage in religious activities at their meetings."

A copy of the letter sent to all school board chairs follows:


October 1, 1999

Ellen G. Nygaard, Chair
Lynchburg City School Board
1827 Royal Oak Drive
Lynchburg, VA 24503

RE: Prayers at School Board Meetings

Dear Ms. Nygaard:

I am writing to ask you not to open meetings of your school board with a religious invocation or otherwise to sponsor or promote religious activities at these official gatherings. This request comes in the wake of Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, a recent decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals holding that prayers at school board meetings violate the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state.

The ACLU of Virginia has long believed that prayers at school board meetings are impermissible under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and we have regularly advocated against such prayers. However, because there were no legal precedents specifically addressing the issue, we have not previously made a blanket request seeking the removal of prayers at meetings of all school boards. The Coles case has changed our thinking on this matter.

Until the Coles decision, many experts assumed that the Supreme Court's 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers, which held that the Nebraska legislature could open its sessions with a prayer, applied to school board meetings.

The court's reasoning in Marsh relied largely on historical precedent, noting particularly that Congress has opened with a prayer since its inception. This rationale was easily extended to local governing bodies, such as boards of supervisors and city councils, but it was never clear that it applied to schools boards.

In the Coles decision, the Sixth Circuit sought to determine if a school board was more like a local governing body, in which case Marsh's permissive rules for religious expression would apply, or if it were more akin to a school function, in which case a series of Supreme Court decisions governing prayer in school would apply.

In 1992, long after the most of the law governing prayer in schools had been established and widely accepted, the Supreme Court, in Lee v. Weisman, addressed the issue of prayers at public high school commencement exercises.

In that case the high court relied on several factors to determine that religious activity at such ceremonies is impermissible. Because students are pressured to attend these events by strongly held traditions, because school officials preside over the ceremonies, and because students may interpret prayers from the podium as being the official prayers of the school, the court felt that the same rules that apply to prayer in the classroom should apply to prayers at graduation ceremonies.

In Coles, the Sixth Circuit took a careful step-by-step approach to the question of prayers at school board meetings. School board members, the court concluded, are school officials, much like teachers and school administrators. Moreover, school board meetings, like commencement exercises, are school functions and often take place on school property. In addition, and importantly, students are usually compelled or strongly urged to attend in order to receive recognition, to appeal disciplinary proceedings, or for school credit. Because of these factors, school board meetings, like graduation ceremonies, should be governed by the rules that apply to the in-school environment.

In addition to following the court's directive in Coles, there is yet another reason not to engage in religious activities at school board meetings. Virginia's increasingly diverse population practices a variety of faiths. Sectarian prayers may have a strongly divisive effect on meeting participants by elevating the faith to which some participants adhere, while implying that other faiths are less important. Some may argue that prayers bring people together, but in Virginia at this time, they are increasingly likely to drive people apart.

Even so-called nonsectarian prayers often elicit strong negative reactions. For some religious persons prayer in a public place is anathema, regardless of its content. For others the homogenizing of different religions that occurs in nonsectarian prayers is offensive.

Although we are a religiously diverse nation, we have much that can be celebrated in common. If you feel that opening a meeting by invoking a common theme sets a salutary tone, may I suggest that you look for something other than religion -- for example, everyone attending a school board meeting must certainly care about school safety and providing the best possible education for students. Such themes will not run afoul of the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state, and with them you are more likely to accomplish your purpose of unifying your participants.

The principle of separation of church and state, when applied to public school functions, does not attempt to remove religion from the minds of students, nor does it prevent students from practicing their faiths during non-instructional periods when they are free to express themselves. But it does require that school officials refrain from any activity that promotes or endorses religion. That is accepted law and clearly stated in the Virginia Board of Education's Guidelines Concerning Religious Activity in Public Schools. Following the good logic of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, it makes sense to apply the same law to the proceedings of school boards.

I encourage you to read the Coles case, to share it with other members of your school board, and then to resolve not to engage in official religious activities at your school board meetings.

If you would like a copy of Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, it can be found on-line at

. You can also obtain a copy by contacting the ACLU of Virginia office.

I thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,

Kent Willis
Executive Director
ACLU of Virginia

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