The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed an amicus brief in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against a school board's practice of starting every meeting with a prayer.
The Birdville Independent School District Board of Trustees selects students to deliver prayers to the public at its meetings. The American Humanist Association filed suit against the Texas school district over this unconstitutional practice, and FFRF submitted its friend-of-the-court brief this week in support of the case. The Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, the Secular Coalition for America, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science also signed on to the brief.
The Birdville school board's practice is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, FFRF asserts. And it encourages community backlash and antagonism toward nontheists, engendering religious divisiveness in the community, which the First Amendment seeks to avoid.
This is particularly unacceptable, FFRF contends, since American society is becoming less and less religious every day. More than 23 percent of Americans are nonreligious, an 8 percentage point increase since 2007 and a 15 percentage point increase since 1990. A full 7 percent of the population — more than 20 million people — is atheistic or agnostic, a larger group than Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists combined. These proportions are much larger for young people, with a full third of Millennials identifying as religiously unaffiliated and 12 percent as atheist or agnostic. Current students are almost certainly even less religious.
By marginalizing nontheists, the Birdville school board is increasing the stigma associated with atheists, who are regularly named in polls as one of the most despised groups in the United States. Not surprisingly, a high proportion of atheists report in surveys as having suffered discrimination, ranging from job loss and abusive family situations to threats and physical violence. By systematically endorsing religion at the start of each and every of its meetings, the Birdville school board is acquiescing in such acts.
"When that exclusion comes from the government, it becomes an impermissible message to nonadherents 'that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community,'" FFRF and the other freethought groups say, quoting a U.S. Supreme Court case. "By favoring the religious over the nonreligious, the government feeds the isolation and exclusion disfavored groups suffer in society. Such policies magnify the discrimination and other harms suffered by atheists."
As history shows, this divisiveness is particularly acute in education, since when religion enters the public schools, it often leads to serious conflicts in the community. The brief cites several instances when students and parents belonging to religious minorities suffered intense harassment when they challenged state-sponsored religious practices.
FFRF and the other groups ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a decision of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Texas and rule the prayer policy of the Birdville school board violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 nonreligious members nationwide, including 1,000-plus in Texas.