Appeals Court Strikes Coercive Prayer At Public Schools

The federal courts continue to issue rulings against officially sponsored prayers in the public schools.

Earlier this week, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction covers the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas, concluded that prayers held at mandatory public school staff meetings violate the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

"The government, of course, may speak on a large number of different issues," the three-judge panel wrote in Warnock v. Archer. "The Constitution, however, forbids it from conveying the message that it decisively endorses a particular religious position. We believe that prayers at mandatory teacher meetings and in-service training convey such a decisive endorsement."

The case emanated from the practices of the Devalls Bluff School District in Arkansas. Steve Warnock, an art teacher, sued the school district in 1999 arguing, among other things, that the district superintendent violated the separation of church and state by conducting prayers at mandatory teacher training meetings. The district court found the school-sponsored prayers to be unconstitutional, but issued an injunction that merely barred them when Warnock was present.

The 8th Circuit concluded in its Aug. 24 ruling that the district court issued the injunction for the wrong reasons and that it failed to "cure the constitutional violation because it continues to allow the defendants to engage in conduct that violates the establishment clause so long as Mr. Warnock is not present." The appeals panel said the injunction against the prayers was justified not because the prayers offended the teacher, but "because they endorsed religion."

The court sent the case back to the district court with the order to "modify the injunction to preclude prayers at mandatory meetings" regardless of whether an offended teacher was present.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing against mandatory school-organized prayer, lauded the ruling for sticking to precedent that holds public school officials should not be in the business of pushing religion.