Do not misinterpret a recent Supreme Court decision, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is warning a California school board against whom it won a historic judgment.
After the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District was released in late June, some members of the Chino Valley Unified School Board have openly discussed introducing prayer back into their school board meetings. Board Vice President Andrew Cruz has recently made some alarming statements implying that the Bremerton decision universally permits prayer at school events. Cruz reportedly said, “People have the right to express their faith without fear of reprisal. That’s important.” He continued, “What’s the difference between a coach and me? ”
FFRF won a major lawsuit challenging the practice of prayer at Chino Valley Unified School Board’s meetings, which resembled church revivals more than public meetings. These meetings opened with prayer and regularly included board members reading from the bible and proselytizing.
In FFRF’s case against the Chino Valley Unified School District, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 reaffirmed that Establishment Clause concerns are heightened in the context of public schools “because children and adolescents are just beginning to develop their own belief systems, and because they absorb the lessons of adults as to what beliefs are appropriate or right.”
Prayer during school board meetings remains unconstitutional, and the Bremerton decision simply affirms that school officials may pray privately during times when they are not acting in their official capacity as school district representatives, FFRF reminds the school board.
“For instance, school board members may pray privately to themselves prior to board meetings,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the school district’s legal counsel. “They could not, however, coerce those in attendance to participate in a religious practice by holding public prayers for everyone.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has regularly struck down prayers imposed on everyone at school-sponsored events, FFRF emphasizes. The recent decision in the Bremerton case does not alter this. The court actually ruled that the Bremerton School District inappropriately disciplined the coach for his personal, private, religious exercise because the prayers for which he was disciplined “were not publicly broadcast or recited to a captive audience.” Religious invocations at the beginning of school board meetings are entirely different from the private prayer practice the court found permissible in Bremerton. School board meeting prayers “typically take place before groups of schoolchildren whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the board, is not one of full parity,” to quote the Chino Valley decision.
While individuals are certainly free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way, it remains unconstitutional for the Chino Valley Unified School Board to institute prayers at its meetings and events, FFRF concludes.
“The Bremerton decision doesn’t change anything regarding school board prayer,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The school board must abide by the decision of the 9th Circuit. Those who are suggesting otherwise are deluding themselves.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 37,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 5,000 members and a chapter in California. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.