Federal appeals court: Prayers at school board meetings are unconstitutional

Monday, March 22, 1999

The Cleveland Board of Education violates the separation of church and state by praying before each of its meetings, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Since early 1992 the Cleveland Board of Education, which meets on public school property, has opened its meetings with prayer — usually Christian prayer. The school board has invited clergy from the area to lead the prayers. The appeals court cited a typical prayer given before a school board meeting: “Our prayer to Thee this night for the entire Board of Education, for all that makes their individual personalities, that they may do justly, love mercy, to walk humbly in a consecrated way to their Lord.”

The school board's practice was challenged that year by Sarah Coles, then an honor student at a Cleveland public high school, and Gene Tracy, a math teacher in the district, as unconstitutional.

During a school board meeting in 1992, Tracy told the school board that its practice was unconstitutional. Lawrence Lumpkin, then school board president, answered: “I want you to know, sir, that we have Christians within this organization. We have Christians that participate in the schools and I feel the moment you kick prayer out of the school, the Lord walks out of the school.”

Coles, who said in affidavit that she was “shocked and surprised” by the board's religious practices, joined Tracy in filing a federal lawsuit alleging the school board was subverting the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Although Tracy and Coles lost at the district level, a panel for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 late last week that the board's practice of praying before every meeting was unconstitutional and therefore would have to end.

In 1996, a federal judge upheld the school board's practice. In finding for the school board, the court cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 1983 ruling in Marsh v. Chambers, which upheld the Nebraska Legislature's practice of opening its sessions with prayer given by a chaplain. The high court stated in Marsh that “the opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.” The district court concluded, in part, that school board meetings were primarily adult gatherings, with little involvement of students.

Judge Ronald Lee Gilman, writing for the appeals court panel, disagreed. “The fact remains that they are part of the same class as those other activities in that they take place on school property and are inextricably intertwined with the public school system,” he wrote.

Gilman then explained why the U.S. Supreme Court always had found government-sponsored prayer in the public school setting unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court's decisions striking down religious intrusion into the public schools have dual basis,” Gilman wrote. “One is the fact that students are young, impressionable, and compelled to attend public schools, and the other is that public schools are particularly important to the maintenance of a democratic, pluralistic society.”

Citing the high court's 1948 ruling in McCollum v. Board of Education, Gilman said that “mixing religious activity with a government institution designed to foster and educate youth in the values of a democratic, pluralistic society is troubling because of the special nature of public schools as 'the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny.'”

Joshua Cohen, a Cleveland attorney who represented the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union's challenge against the school board, lauded the appeals court ruling.

“I honestly believe that if you care seriously about religious freedom, this decision should be celebrated, because it says freedom of conscience is far too important to allow government to tell us when, how and where to pray,” Cohen said.

The school district's attorney said she had not decided whether to ask the full 6th Circuit to review the decision. Lisa Marie Ruda, the district's chief legal counsel, told The Plain-Dealer that the district would “take a long, hard look” at the decision.