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For the school board members in the Chino Valley school district, the practice of opening meetings with a prayer has been ruled a violation of the Establishment Clause.
While the district and appellate court did recognize a "legislative tradition" of the use of opening prayers by governing bodies, the courts ruled that the school board meetings fell outside that tradition because students were encouraged to participate and attend.
Notably, what put the meetings within the Establishment Clause, rather than the legislative tradition, was primarily due to the fact that the school children in the district were encouraged to attend, and participate. The board did so by inviting a student board member to vote on the issues alongside the board, and also by allowing a student committee to meet and rule on issues at the start of the meeting. Additionally, during the meetings, students would be recognized by the board for various accomplishments, and would be invited to attend to receive awards.
The Ninth Circuit explained that the legislative tradition of an opening prayer to help unify the governing body only applied when "conducted before an audience of mature adults free from coercive pressures to participate."
The appellate court went on to explain that a school board, or district, unlike a governing body, is an extension of the schools in which the students attend. This complicates the matter, especially when students are active participants in the board meetings. The board meetings, as the court explained, "function as extensions of the educational experience."
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