Evan Lee


The Supreme Court has carved a legislative prayer exception out of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to allow clergy to deliver opening prayers at legislative sessions and meetings of local public deliberative bodies, such as town boards. Meanwhile, for decades, the Supreme Court has struck drown prayers in the public school context, including prayers in the classroom, at graduation ceremonies, and at high school varsity football games. However, the Supreme Court has not addressed whether prayers at public school board meetings should be barred as prayers in the public school context or permitted under the legislative prayer exception. A circuit split has recently emerged as the Fifth Circuit became the first U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to hold that the legislative prayer exception applies to school board meetings.

This article examines the background of the legislative prayer exception and the Supreme Court’s school prayer cases. In addition, this article analyzes the circuit split regarding the application of the legislative prayer exception to public school board meetings.

This article proposes that should the Supreme Court address the issue of school board prayer, it should establish clear guidelines for lower courts to follow that focus on context-specific factors, such as the audience, structure, and subject matter of school board meetings. Consequently, the Supreme Court would limit the legislative prayer exception’s applicability to school board meetings that are similar to local government body meetings and prohibit prayers at school board meetings that closely resemble a classroom or school-sponsored event.