An activist atheist group is suing a Texas school district for holding prayers before school board meetings.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) filed a brief Monday with the Fifth Circuit Court to stop a motion of dismissal from the Birdville Independent School District. The activist group filed suit in May of last year, saying the school board’s practice of inviting guests to pray before meetings violated the Constitution.
“The prayers are often Christian and make specific references to Jesus and Christ,” the lawsuit reads.
The group says the district has held prayers since 1997, often having students pray.
“When public meetings include school-endorsed prayers, they send a divisive message that favors Christians while excluding nonreligious and non-Christian members of the community,” Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA, said in a statement. “Students and members of the community have the right to be free from religious coercion at school board meetings.”
The activists say the prayers are divisive, citing one prayer where someone prayed, “Help them to stay focused on their goals, to keep our school on a forward and positive avenue.”
Prayers before public meetings have long been a source of legal fighting. The Supreme Court ruled in May 2014 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that prayers are allowed before local government meetings, but only if the prayers are not given by elected officials, don’t discriminate against any faith and do not coerce people into prayer.
“The prayer was intended to place town board members in a solemn and deliberative frame of mind, invoke divine guidance in town affairs, and follow a tradition practiced by Congress and dozens of state legislatures,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s opinion.
Pheonix’s city council voted in February to stop prayers before meetings because Satanists demanded they have time to pray as well.
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