A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2016 injunction against the religious practices, which the court said dated back to at least 2010.
In its appeal, the Chino Valley Unified School District board argued that it was covered by an exception for traditional prayer at the start of state legislatures, Congress and town hall meetings.
The 9th Circuit disagreed, noting that the school board meetings include children and teenagers who are more vulnerable than adults to outside influence and who have been obligated to attend to give presentations, perform or receive awards.
“These prayers typically take place before groups of schoolchildren whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the board, is not one of full parity,” the court said in an unsigned decision.
Unlike sessions of Congress, state legislatures and town boards, the Chino Valley school board meetings “function as extensions of the educational experience of the district’s public schools,” the 9th Circuit said.
Two other federal appeals courts have previously ruled that prayer was off-limits for school board meetings. Another circuit allowed it, but in that case there was no student on the board. Chino Valley’s board had a student member.
The board defended its opening prayer as a sign of respect for religious diversity.
But the court said the board’s list of congregations that could be invited excluded several religions. Roughly 2 percent of California’s population is Buddhist, 2 percent Jewish, 1 percent Mormon and 1 percent Orthodox Christian, and none of those religions were included on the board’s list, the court said.
The court also noted that atheists and agnostics comprise 4 percent to 5 percent of the state’s population.
A group called Freedom from Religion Foundation Inc. sued the San Bernardino County school district, charging that in addition to the opening prayer, board members read from Christian Scripture at various times.
At a meeting in January 2014, a board member urged everyone “who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find him.” At another meeting that year, another board member thanked God “for sending his son Jesus Christ so our sins would be forgiven.”
Wednesday’s decision was made by 9th Circuit Judges M. Margaret McKeown and Kim McLane Wardlaw and Colorado District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel, all appointees of President Bill Clinton.
The court based its decision on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“The Establishment Clause, grounded in experiences of persecution, affirms the fundamental truth that no matter what an individual’s religious beliefs, he has a valued place in the political community,” the 9th Circuit said.