Monday, March 1, 2010

Federal Judge Rules School Board Prayer is Indeed Constitutional

Last week a federal judge ruled that it is not unconstitutional for the Indian River School Board to begin its meetings with a Christian prayer. The ruling was made by District Judge Joseph J. Farnan Jr., who threw out the lawsuit brought by two Jewish families, "Jane and John Doe" and Mona and Marco Dobrich, against the Sussex County School district. The plaintiffs sued the district, claiming that the school board, by praying before meetings, violated the constitutional separation of church and state. In his ruling Judge Farman stated that because the elected school board is closer to a legislative body than a school, their prayer is indeed permissible.

The lawsuit was first filed back in 2005, after the Dobrichs were upset when a Christian prayer was said at their daughter's school graduation. They alleged that the school board and school district were promoting Christianity, which created "an environment of religious exclusion." The federal suit also charged that students involved in Christian religious groups received preferential treatment. One district teacher allegedly told his class that there is "only one true religion," a science teacher allegedly told her class she did not believe in the big bang theory, then encouraged her students to attend the Bible Club.

Last year, the school district settled the bulk of the lawsuit by making undisclosed payments to the families. It also promised to not promote a specific religion and instead adopt new policies to help encourage tolerance and settle diversity issues. The Dobrich family withdrew the suit and has since moved out of the district.

The settlement intentionally left out the issue of the school board's prayer so that it could be decided separately, which was left up to Judge Farnan. He concluded that the Indian River School Board did not use its prayer policy "to proselytize or advance religion," so he believed that the court "may not demand anything further of the board."

It was quite interesting to read about this ruling after last week's class, when we discussed the numerous cases regarding prayer/religion in public schools. I personally feel that Farnan's ruling does not uphold the rights that the Constitution guarantees Americans. In Engel v. Vitale, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to say a morning prayer in New York public schools, and that prayer wasn't even a prayer for a specific religion! Even though the prayer was essentially made-up and written by the board of New York, the court ruled that because there was obvious religious intent, it breaks the wall of separation between church and state. In this case with the Indian River School board, the intent is crystal clear: the offering of a Christian prayer at the start of a meeting has obvious religious intent. For Judge Farnan to make a ruling allowing the school board to continue saying this prayer seems to be breaking that wall of separation and to be giving preference to a specific religion over other religions, which is just as unconstitutional as giving preference to religion over non-religion.


nedwards13 said...

I personally do not think that the United States as a whole will ever be able to fully declare 100% execution of the "Separation of Church and State Idea." When this subject comes about one of the first things that always come to mind is the mentioning of "God" in the pledge of allegiance. That will most likely no change within our lifetime and therefore with that one word we are not executing the “Separation” correctly. I am Catholic and therefore Christian. I must admit although that I find it very disturbing when the topic of religion is brought up in a public place and not being discussed in a scholarly manner but instead with bias opinions. I understand that we have freedom of speech but I also have the right to not listen, free will. This to me is the most efficient and plausible approach that needs to be taken in the question of religion in schools. Public School is free (for the most part), my mother is an educator and she will tell you that the last thing that comes across her mind during the day is implementing god in the curriculum. Teachers have other things to worry about such as standardized testing and title one school criteria, not god and who is offended by the mere mentioning of that word. When the person at the mall comes up to me and hands me a tiny pocket book with the little smiley face on the front that says “smile Jesus loves you.” I quietly take it and once the person has turned the corner I throw the paraphernalia away. I know that Jesus loves me and I know how I personally have a connection. My religion is an ethnic one that does not find a need to recruit members, but unlike some people that would insult the man, harass him and or sue him I choose to ignore him. There are some battles that are worth fighting and others that are lost from the commencement. I believe in one nation under god, and if you don’t fill in the blank yourself. Quietly of course because we must not offend anybody after all some people are just too sensitive and we must give liberty and justice to all.

Abby P said...

I thought this particular case was was interesting, in that the school board prayer was left to be dealt with separately from the other aspects of the case. I would personally agree with the original post in thinking that the school board, engaging in a Christian prayer at the commencement of its meeting, is a violation of the Constitution. As the post mentions, in Engel v. Vitale, the Court struck down a nonsectarian prayer recited at the beginning of a school day. The prayer uttered by the school board was even more egregious than the prayer in Engel in that it was solely Christian in nature. Also as was determined in Engel, the Court agreed that prayers are inherently religious. The board's recitation of a prayer before its meeting also violates the Lemon test. The prayer clearly is not secular in nature; it acts to advance one religion while inhibiting others; and it proves to be an excessive entanglement of church and state. I think that in this case the prayer should have been declared to be unconstitutional. As Justice Brennan asserted we must view complaints concerning religion from the minority perspective in order to understand when particular religious rights have been violated. By looking at this case from the minority perspective one can ascertain that the school board indeed had the intention of promoting Christianity while subverting other religions.

David I said...

I agree with Lauren's argument that this decision violates the separation of church and state. "In his ruling Judge Farman stated that because the elected school board is closer to a legislative body than a school, their prayer is indeed permissible." The fact that the elected school board is more like a legislative body makes the necessity of separation between religion and the state that much greater. If a school board is injecting religion into their meetings, than they may be placing religious bias into the rules that they pass for local schools. While the school board may not be promoting a religion in their meetings, they may be doing so by passing laws that prefer one religion over another.

Lauren P said...

I also agree with Lauren's argument. Using Engle v. Vitale as a precedent, it certainly seems that this prayer should be declared unconstitutional. My impression of the intent of this prayer is that it is not for a secular purpose. The prayer is advancing one religion over all others and over non-religion. Furthermore, I agree with David that this blatant inclusion of religion in school meetings may eventually effect what is taught in this district or permitted in the schools themselves. Clearly there has already been some instances in which Christian prayers were offered, such as at a graduation ceremony, which I think definitely violates the Establishment Clause. I am interested to see what the Court of Appeals will decide once the appeal is set into motion.

Justin M said...

I don’t think that there is much argument about whether the recitation of a specifically Christian prayer at a graduation breached the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Furthermore, more problems in the school district are evident through the actions of the science teacher. In the instance given, the teacher was undoubtedly pushing her religious beliefs onto students. However, these problems were essentially accepted as problems by the school board. Thus, they were settled outside of the legal system. The issue of having a specific prayer at a school board meeting is apparently a different problem. Judge Farnan believed that since the school board was in fact a pseudo-legislative body, it was their job to decide what was acceptable at their meetings; not the courts. The logic behind this being that if the court ruled in a way that told the school board what was acceptable it would become even more excessively entangled in religious rights. Although I do not agree with this argument, it is a possible rationale behind the ruling. In any case, I believe that other’s are correct in their assessment that by allowing the school board to preference a certain religion, there is no way to stop the schools from continuing to have these issues of separation and establishment.