Tennessee school officials may flout federal court on school-board prayer

Tuesday, April 13, 1999

School officials in two Tennessee districts say their school board meetings will continue to be opened with prayer, despite a federal court ruling that says such actions subvert the U.S. Constitution.

Last month a panel for the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Cleveland Board of Education had been violating the separation of church and state for years by allowing Christian prayer before its meetings. The 6th Circuit's jurisdiction comprises Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Tennessee affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union says that two school boards for counties near Nashville have announced they will continue their practice of praying before meetings. Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee ACLU, said that she knows many school boards across the state open their meetings with prayer and that she was preparing a letter to send to all school boards warning them that such action is unconstitutional.

“If the school boards that are currently praying before their public meetings continue to do so, they are violating the law and if we get complaints we will pursue those complaints,” Weinberg said.

Officials for Williamson County, a wealthy and homogeneous area south of Nashville, say its school board will not cease its prayers, despite the federal court ruling, Weinberg says.

“Clearly, I would hope that Williamson County school officials would recognize they are agents of the state and that they have a federal court decision to adhere to,” she said. “If they don't adhere to the decision, then they are patently placing their school systems in jeopardy of a lawsuit and risking financial hardship because of such legal actions.”

The school board chairman of Sumner County, a rural and conservative area northeast of Nashville, told The Tennessean, the Nashville daily newspaper, that he did not believe courts could dictate to the board “where we can pray or when we can pray.” The Rev. Will Duncun, the school board chairman and a minister at a local Baptist church, told the paper that the board needed guidance from the “head of the entire universe.”

The 6th Circuit decision in Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, however, found that public school board members must refrain from attempting to obtain divine guidance at public school board meetings. The 6th Circuit panel ruled that the Cleveland Board of Education's practice of praying before its public meetings violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Earlier this month, attorneys for the Cleveland Board of Education asked the entire 6th Circuit to rehear the case.

Although state legislatures may constitutionally open their sessions with prayer, the 6th Circuit ruled that school board meetings are not analogous to legislatures. It said the board meetings take place on school property, often involve student and parent participation and “are inextricably intertwined with the public school system.”

Writing for the 6th Circuit panel, Judge Ronald Lee Gilman said “the fact that the function of the school board is uniquely directed toward school-related matters gives it a different type of 'constituency' than those of other legislative bodies — namely, students.” Further, Gilman wrote that “unlike ordinary constituencies, students cannot vote,” and “they are thus unable to express their discomfort with state-sponsored religious practices through the democratic process.”

Weinberg said she had attended several Williamson County School Board meetings where parents questioned the board about its prayers. According to Weinberg, school officials simply stated they could pray before their meetings if they liked.

“One of the roles we expect our schools to teach our students is that there are laws to adhere to,” she said. “And yet here we have school board members in various counties that are flagrantly breaking laws and talking about it. Students learn about the importance our Constitution and its Bill of Rights and then they hear school board members are willing to flout those documents.”

Rob Wheeler, attorney for the Williamson County School Board, said that he has notified school board members that the school system could face litigation if the board continued praying before public meetings.

“We will see what they do,” Wheeler said. “I have given advice to numerous clients that has been ignored and not followed. I told school board members that if they continue they may face an injunction and possible attorney fees.”

Joan Englund, a cooperating attorney for the Ohio ACLU, said that the Cleveland Board of Education has decided to ask the entire 6th Circuit to rehear the Coles decision.

“Until that decision is overturned, it is the law in the 6th Circuit, which includes Tennessee,” Englund said. “Officials showing defiance to the ruling are essentially telling kids that although they know what the law is, they will not act in accordance.”

Englund said the Ohio ACLU was “confident the panel made the correct legal decision,” and that it “hoped the rest of the court would agree.”

Richard M. Knoth, attorney for the Cleveland school board, however, maintained that the 6th Circuit panel created “new law which prohibits any public prayer or a moment of silence at a meeting of a school board.”

Knoth argues in the school board's brief for a rehearing that the panel's decision contradicts 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.

“Like Marsh, the prayers offered at school board meetings are not proselytizing or indoctrinating but a mere invocation which harmonizes the day's events with religious cannons or familiar writings,” Knoth wrote.

Additionally, Knoth cited a 1997 federal court decision in Chaudhuri v. State of Tennessee, which said that prayers before public meetings serve a secular purpose by dignifying or memorializing the occasion.

According to Knoth the 6th Circuit's decision “erects not just a high wall of separation but an absolute barrier.”