Prayer Is Prologue: The Impact of Town of Greece on the Constitutionality of Deliberative Public Body Prayer at the Start of School Board Meetings
31 J.L. & Pol. 1 (2015)
43 Pages Posted: 12 Jan 2015 Last revised: 26 Aug 2015
Date Written: January 9, 2015
In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court upheld a town board’s practice of opening each session with a prayer – often sectarian – delivered by visiting clergy. The Court drew upon the principles set forth twenty years earlier in Marsh v. Chambers, upholding the legislative prayer practice of the Nebraska state legislature. As the Article title suggests, prayer is prologue in these cases and is therefore permissible. The Court found in both Marsh and Town of Greece that religious invocations at the start of sessions of “legislative and other deliberative public bodies” do not violate the Establishment Clause. Rather, voluntary prayer givers direct these opening prayers toward the policymakers to encourage a spirit of cooperation prior to deliberation.
The Town of Greece decision has prompted a number of school boards to revisit their own prayer practices. Since Marsh, circuit courts have positioned school boards at the intersection between the “legislative prayer” exception and the “prayer in schools” prohibition. Enter Town of Greece, which clarified that the concept of legislative prayer applies to even the most intimate of deliberative public bodies. Because school boards equate with town boards in deliberative function and design, the principles established in Town of Greece logically extend to school boards.
This Article argues that the Court’s decision in Town of Greece lends a natural extension of its principles to school boards as deliberative public bodies. Part I examines the development of the deliberative public body doctrine leading up to Town of Greece, the avenues taken by school board circuit court precedent, and how some local school boards have reacted since the decision. Part II argues that a school board is nearly identical in nature to a town board, and therefore should have the discretion to open its meetings with an invocation in the same manner that town boards offer opening invocations. Part III explains that any structural distinctions between school boards and town boards are not constitutionally relevant for the limited purpose of solemnizing the meetings of adult school board members with a brief opening invocation. Part IV outlines the extent to which Town of Greece has eroded school board circuit court precedent. Part V examines the special case of student representatives to school boards. Finally, Part VI examines ways in which school districts may minimize potential Establishment Clause issues during opening invocations at school board meetings.
Keywords: Town of Greece v. Galloway, Town of Greece, Marsh v. Chambers, Establishment Clause, school board, invocation, prayer, benediction, religion, town board, town council, municipal, deliberative public body, deliberative body, legislative prayer, legislative body, Lee v. Weisman, board of education
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