Supreme court in an ongoing battle to restrict prayers before meetings

Dylan Eguiluz, Staff Writer

The ongoing controversy behind school board prayers may soon be reaching the Supreme Court, ultimately deciding whether the prayers are in violation of the First Amendment. Prayers within public schools have often stirred controversy over their constitutionality — such as praying during school sports games or in the classroom at the beginning of the day.
While Lodi Unified School District does not have a tradition of beginning board meetings with prayer, Chino Valley Unified School District has been in an ongoing legal battle to appeal a court decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which prohibits the board from beginning their public meetings with a prayer, a practice the school board has conducted since 2010. Some of Lodi District’s religious community sees the lawsuit as unnecessary.
“As long as everybody there agrees to do [prayer] then it shouldn’t really matter,” junior Maya Payton said. “Those who don’t want to participate don’t have to.”
Chino Valley came under fire from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a non-profit organization which promotes the separation of church and state. The organization filed a lawsuit against the school district in 2014, and arguments could reach the Supreme Court if the district seeks to appeal the decision.
The 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the advocacy group, saying the prayers violated the 1st Amendment’s prohibition of government establishing religion. Those in support of Chino Valley cite Marsh v. Chambers, a case in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Nebraska’s prayer before every legislative day. The High Court in Marsh v. Chambers ruled that the prayer was “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
Although individual prayer at school is not in violation of the First Amendment, Engel V. Vitale decided that it was unconstitutional for state officials to compose school prayers. A New York state law implemented in 1951 required that classes begin the day with a non-denominational school prayer until a parent of one of the students sued, claiming the prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parent; subsequentl, school-orchestrated prayers were then banned.
Engel v. Vitale set the precedent for public schools to enforce the establishment clause, which states that Congress is prohibited from establishing a state religion. Though the conservative Supreme Court may echo the arguments of the dissenting opinion of Engel v. Vitale, possibly arguing that the prayer is a tradition conducted by consenting individuals. In 1962, Justice Stewart argued in Engel v. Vitale that the establishment clause was specific to state sponsored churches and not religious practices conducted by the class. Chino Valley’s defense was that their prayers did not coerce those who chose not to participate and that they did not discriminate against any minority faith.
According to the instruction policy of Lodi Unified School District, “School-sponsored programs should not be, nor have the effect of being, religiously oriented or a religious celebration.”
Not everyone in Bear Creek’s religious body is on board with Chino Valley.
“Even if it’s the parents or board members, there is a preference for [prayers], but it shouldn’t be implemented into a public school board meeting” senior Amanda Perez said.
While Chino Valley has yet to appeal to the Supreme Court, the case could ultimately snowball into another landmark case regarding religious practices in school.