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Prayer at government meetings violates the 1st Amendment

When citizens attend a government meeting, they shouldn’t have to be subjected to official prayer, whether it takes the form of a petition to God “in Jesus’ name” or a more ecumenical invocation. Inevitably a prayer offered as part of a public proceeding – whether it’s a city council meeting or a state legislative hearing or any other such gathering – will make some listeners feel excluded. That runs counter to the 1st Amendment’s prohibition of an “establishment of religion.”

The same principle ought to apply to school board meetings. Parents and taxpayers who attend those meetings shouldn’t be required to listen to prayers that invoke religious beliefs they don’t share – especially at a time when this country is becoming more religiously diverse.

Yet meetings of the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education included prayers, offered usually by invited members of the clergy but sometimes by board members. Over a period of several years, board members regularly endorsed prayer, read bible verses and proclaimed their Christian beliefs. One member described the board’s goal as “under God, Jesus Christ.”

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently supported an earlier ruling by a three-judge panel prohibiting the Chino district from continuing with its prayer policy. That is a welcome and appropriate outcome. The panel cogently explained why prayers at school board sessions lack a “secular purpose” and differ from prayers by legislative chaplains upheld by the Supreme Court in 1983.

The problem is that the appeals court also had to reckon with a misguided 2014 decision in which the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, upheld the policy of the town of Greece, N.Y., which invited mostly Christian clergy to offer prayers at council meetings.

Although some of the prayers at Greece’s meetings were nonsectarian and arguably innocuous (celebrating the change of seasons or calling for a “spirit of cooperation” among town leaders), others invoked Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

Yet the Supreme Court decided that those prayers were permissible – a wrongheaded decision, in our view. As Justice Elena Kagan noted in her eloquent dissent in that case: “A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim (and so forth) – each stands in the same relationship with her country, with her state and local communities, and with every level and body of government. So that when each person performs the duties or seeks the benefits of citizenship, she does so not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American.”

The town of Greece’s prayer practices, she added, “violate that norm of religious equality – the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

The 9th Circuit panel sought to distinguish the Greece Town Council in the 2014 decision from the Chino school district. It said that, because impressionable schoolchildren were often present at school board meetings, the meetings “function as extensions of the educational experience of the district’s public schools.”

That argument is more clever than convincing. Senior Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, who wanted the decision to be reviewed by a larger group of judges, wrote in his dissent that “the board, as a governing body, exists in order to legislate – not in order to educate.”

Ideally the Supreme Court would use this or a similar case to make a firm statement in opposition to prayers at all meetings of governing bodies, school boards and city councils alike. That, however, seems unlikely; more probably the conservative majority would persist in taking a benign view of the mixing of government and religion.

Even if a majority of the Supreme Court continues to wink at official prayers at public meetings, elected officials across the country can act on their own to eliminate the practice, which marginalizes religious minorities and blurs the distinction between church and state. They might begin by reading Kagan’s dissent.

A version of this editorial originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.