Ninth Circuit Finds Prayer at School Board Meetings Unconstitutional

Volume 30, No. 3

In the ongoing effort by courts to determine how the First Amendment interacts with schools and school governance, a federal appellate court has taken up the issue of whether school boards are allowed to have a policy and practice of permitting religious exercise during board meetings, including religious prayer. This article examines that recent case, Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, et al., and offers readers some thoughts on guidance we can take from that decision.

The Facts
The Chino Valley Unified School District, located in southern California, had five adult, non-student school board members, and one student representative. Since at least 2010, all Board meetings included prayer, often from an invited clergy member, but sometimes when no clergy member was present a Board member or member of the ublic would lead the prayer.

In addition to regularly beginning their meetings with prayer, the individual adult members of the Chino Valley board often “endorsed prayer, read Bible verses, and reaffirmed their Christian beliefs.” They would often make comments related to serving “God,” and the need to look to Jesus Christ to serve the students of Chino Valley. The Board also routinely held a “student showcase” where students, and sometimes entire classes, would attend a board meeting in order to discuss their academic and extracurricular accomplishments.

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