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Appeals court rejects La. law setting aside time for prayer

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–A federal appeals court ruled Dec. 11 a Louisiana law allowing public school students and teachers time each day to pray is unconstitutional.

A panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans voted 3-0 to affirm a federal court ruling that found the law violated the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

The Louisiana legislature originally adopted the law in 1976, but a 1999 amendment to the measure set the stage for its failure in court. The 1976 version required local school boards to permit school officials to set aside at the start of each day a “brief time in silent meditation.” In 1992, the law was amended to permit a time of “silent prayer or meditation.” The legislature removed the word “silent” two years ago.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU filed suit that year on behalf of students and parents in the Ouachita Parish.

The language of the amendment and its legislative history “demonstrate that the sole purpose of the amendment was to return verbal prayer to the public schools,” the appeals court panel wrote in its opinion. Thus, according to the ruling, the amendment failed the Lemon test’s first prong, which requires a law have a secular purpose.

The Lemon test, based on the Supreme Court’s opinion in the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman case, mandates a government activity pass a three-part test to avoid violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The other two prongs require a law neither advance nor inhibit religion as its main effect and not promote excessive government entanglement with religion.

In October, the Supreme Court allowed to stand a Virginia law requiring public schools to observe a minute of silence each day.

The law, enacted in 2000, mandates schools establish a minute each day in which students may “meditate, pray or engage in any other silent activity which does not interfere with, distract or impede” other students. Eight families, with the support of the ACLU, filed suit against the state.

In July of this year, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law was not a violation of the establishment clause. That opinion affirmed a federal judge’s 2000 decision, which said the law passed the Lemon test.

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