NEW ORLEANS—Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal judge on Wednesday to strike down a Louisiana school board's policy of opening its meetings with a prayer, a practice the board says is consistent with a Supreme Court ruling.
The ACLU of Louisiana claims the Tangipahoa Parish school board's invocation policy promotes Christian prayer and is unconstitutional. But the board's attorney says its policy doesn't violate the First Amendment because it doesn't advance any particular religious faith.
Both sides on Wednesday asked U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman for a ruling that would resolve the case without a trial, but the judge didn't immediately rule.
The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of an unidentified couple with two children enrolled in the district. This is the second time that the couple identified in court papers only as John and Sally Doe have sued the school board over its invocation policy.
John Doe initially challenged the board's prayer policy in 2003, but a federal appeals court ruled he didn't prove he had the right to sue without evidence he had attended any board meetings. After the school board adopted a new prayer policy in 2007, the couple filed another suit, saying they were offended by prayers they heard before board meetings.
The ACLU says the board also refused to let the couple give an invocation at a meeting because they aren't "within a congregation."
J. Michael Johnson, a lawyer for the board, questioned the couple's motives for asking to give an invocation if they are offended by the prayer policy.
"You can't have it both ways," said Johnson, also an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian civil rights group. "It's like saying, 'I hate chocolate, pass me a Hershey bar."'
In court papers, Johnson said a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Nebraska Legislature's prayer policy established that "prayers offered at the start of government meetings are an essential part of American culture and in no way a violation of the Constitution." Johnson said the parish's policy was tailored to fit that ruling.
"This is the most sound policy that has ever been tested by a federal court," he said.
But the ACLU says the board's system for picking prayer-givers is designed to exclude non-Christians. None of the area's Jewish or Muslim religious leaders have been asked to speak at a meeting, but the board has invited Christian leaders from outside the parish to deliver invocations, the ACLU says.
"There was no way they were going to get people other than Christians to give the invocation," said Ronald Wilson, who represented the ACLU.
At the end of the hearing, Feldman directed both sides to submit another round of briefs within 10 days.
"Once that's accomplished, I promise to get an opinion out very quickly," he said. "Obviously, it's a very sensitive and important constitutional issue."