Q: Our district allows a different student speaker to open our board meeting each month. Some students elect to open the meeting with prayer, and a parent is now complaining that the students should not be allowed to pray. Must we exclude prayer as an option for our student speakers at board meetings?
A: No. Because the introduction fits into the legislative prayer exception to traditional Establishment Clause jurisprudence, the district is not required to prohibit student speakers from praying to open a board meeting.
In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled prayer to open the Nebraska legislative session was constitutional because “the opening sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.” The Court revisited the issue in 2014, again finding that the legislative prayer exception was applicable to a town hall meeting in Greece, New York, further clarifying that the prayer must not “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.”
Just last month, the 5th Circuit applied the same legislative prayer exception to Birdville ISD where a student speaker opened each board meeting, often including prayer. BISD officials did not direct the students on what to say, except to require the statement be relevant to the school-board meeting and not obscene or inappropriate. The court found that “a school board is more like a legislature than a school classroom or event.” Therefore, the student-prayer opening the meeting is permissible under the legislative prayer exception.
Of course, when student speech occurs at a school function, rather than a board meeting, the legislative exception is inapplicable. As such, you’ll want to ensure that board policy FNA (Local) creates a limited public forum for student speakers at the particular event where the introductory comments are expected. The district should also confirm that students are instructed not to use the platform to proselytize or make obscene or inappropriate remarks. Finally, the specific content of the student’s remarks should not be directed by a district employee and the decision whether to pray or not should be made by the student.