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Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down a Louisiana School Prayer Statute

The American Jewish Congress has hailed a decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declaring unconstitutional a Louisiana statute that authorized prayers in public schools. The AJCongress had filed a friend-of-the court brief in the case challenging the school-prayer law.

The court’s 2-to-1 decision was handed down Wednesday in the case of Karen B. v Treen, according to Nathan Dershowitz, director of the AJCongress Commission on Law and Social Action. It involved Act 519 of the 1980 Louisiana Legislature, signed into law July 1980 by Governnor David Treen and authorizing local school boards to allow teachers “to ask if a student wishes to volunteer to offer a prayer and, in the event that no student does volunteer, to allow the teacher to offer a prayer.”

Following the enactment of the law, the Jefferson Parish School Board passed a resolution establishing “a moment of prayer and/or silent meditation at the beginning of each school day …”

APPEAL TO U.S. SUPREME COURT EXPECTED

Several parents in the school district challenged the resolution in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. When the District Court ruled against them, the parents appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals, which has now upheld their appeal. The State of Louisiana is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its ruling, the Circuit Court declared: “Since prayer is a primary religious activity in itself, its observance in public school classrooms has, if anything, a more obviously religious purpose than merely displaying a copy of a religious text in the classroom. Even if the avowed objective of the Legislature and school board is not itself strictly religious, it is sought to be achieved through the observance of an intrinsically religious practice.

“The unmistakable message of the Supreme Court’s teachings is that the state cannot employ a religious means to serve otherwise legitimate secular interests.”

In its friend-of-the court brief, the AJCongress argued: “Nearly twenty years ago, the United States Supreme Court squarely held that a state sponsored program of prayer in the public schools, though voluntary, violates the Establishment clause of the United States Constitution …

“Holding Act 519 unconstitutional would not establish a ‘religion of secularism hostile to religion.’ The Supreme Court and the lower courts have clearly held that forbidding prayer programs in the public schools neither abridges students’ freedom to pray nor exhibits government hostility to religion. Rather, invalidation of Act 519 is necessary to preserve the State’s constitutionally mandated neutrality in religious matters.”

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