A federal court in late February invalidated a Louisiana school board’s practice of opening its meetings with prayers.
Since 1973, the Tangipahoa Parish School Board has begun its meetings, which are also open to the district’s students, with a prayer delivered by persons selected by the school board. In her Feb. 24 ruling, Judge Helen G. Berrigan noted that the school board’s typical prayer included a reference to a “Heavenly Father.” In striking down the policy, Berrigan cited federal court precedent holding that organized prayer in public schools violates church-state separation. Citing the high court’s 1992 ruling in Lee v. Weisman, Berrigan noted there “are heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools.”
Berrigan concluded that the Tangipahoa School Board was an integral part of the public school system and therefore must not sanction religious activities at its meetings.
“In a very real sense,” she wrote, “the Board runs the schools, and serves as the spokesperson of the public school system. In officially promoting a religious practice at its governmental meetings, the Board is doing what its schools and teachers cannot do, favor religion over nonreligion and endorse particular religious faiths.”
Her ruling drew attacks and calls for an appeal from Louisiana politicians, including the governor. Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco said her administration would file a friend-of-the-court brief in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of prayer at school board meetings.