Fort Worth-area District Can Continue Inviting Students to Pray at School Board Meetings, Court Says

A federal court ruled this week that a North Texas district can continue student-led prayers at its school board meetings in another case that tested the boundaries of religious expression in government.Birdville ISD graduate Isaiah Smith and a nonprofit called American Humanist Association sued the Haltom City-based district two years ago alleging that the Christian prayers at the school board meetings made Smith feel "violated and uncomfortable." Smith, who said he attended meetings before and after his 2014 graduation, told the court that the district's practice pressures students and others to participate.The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed."Occasionally, BISD board members and other school officials will ask the audience, including any students in the audience, to stand for the invocation," Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote. "Those polite requests, however, do not coerce prayer."Court documents detail the district's practice: Since 1997, two students have opened school board meetings -- one by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the other by delivering a one-minute statement, which can be a prayer. Elementary and middle school students were originally selected based on merit, but the district later changed its policy to pick students at random from a list of volunteers.Speakers frequently opt for prayers and reference "Jesus" and "Christ," according to the court file.Religious expression in government is often a tricky matter. Public officials must respect people's right to freely practice religion while obeying another clause in the First Amendment that forbids the government from endorsing a religion.Federal courts occasionally have to step in to make a determination about what is constitutional and what is not.   Continue reading...

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