La. school board revises policy on pre-meeting prayers

Thursday, April 16, 2009

AMITE, La. — Facing a federal lawsuit set to go to trial in June, the Tangipahoa Parish School Board has altered its meeting invocation policy.

The school board’s attorney said changes to the policy stemmed from concerns raised elsewhere and were not a result of the litigation in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana sued the school board in February 2008, saying the policy unlawfully favors religion and makes some people who want to attend school board meetings choose between missing part of the meeting or listening to a prayer from a faith they don’t share. The lawsuit was the seventh the ACLU filed concerning religion in Tangipahoa Parish public schools.

The policy, adopted by the board in August 2007, is based on a model used by municipal governments in other states. The policy sets forth how the board should select clergy to deliver invocations in advance of meetings and when and under what circumstances those invocations are to be given: generally about five minutes before meetings start.

School board officials, who voted for the changes April 9 in a special meeting, said the revisions were made merely to “clean up” the policy. One change explains that if there is a question about whether a congregation is authentic, school officials should rely on criteria the IRS uses to determine if religious organizations are tax-exempt.

The school board’s special attorney in the case, Michael Johnson, said last week that the question arose in another community with a similar policy and he advised the school board to make the change.

The ACLU filed its lawsuit on behalf of a Loranger resident identified as John Doe No. 2. He filed anonymously because he and his family “fear retribution from the school board and the community,” according to the ACLU.

In an earlier lawsuit by the ACLU, U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan ruled in 2005 that prayers at the school board’s meetings violated the separation of church and state. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2007 voted 8-7 to overturn that decision, saying the ACLU never showed that the public school students and parent whom it represented had ever been exposed to the prayers.

The school board adopted its policy the following month, voting to invite clergy from all established congregations in the area to give invocations before board meetings, in order of their response to the invitation.

The ACLU says that because the board president chooses the clergy, the board, in effect, chooses which religions are acceptable and creates the appearance of favoring some religions over others.

The lawsuit also describes three board meetings at which ministers from different Christian denominations made Christian prayers.

It also says Doe’s wife asked in October 2007 if she could give an invocation but was told that duty was reserved for ministers of congregations or police or fire department chaplains and that being “nondenominational” would also bar her from giving an invocation.

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