That is one of the questions that came to mind in reading today’s Third Circuit decision in Doe v. Indian River School District. The Third Circuit holds unconstitutional the Indian River School District’s policy of allowing Board members to open Board meetings (often attended by students) with a prayer. In practice, this policy resulted in almost exclusively Christian prayers.
The decision has some important factual differences, but it is closely related to a circuit split between the Fourth and Eleventh Circuits that I previously mentioned.
Constitutional analysis aside for the moment, a question raised by these cases is what is meant by “sectarian” and “non-sectarian.” The opinions all seem to use “sectarian” to denote a broad religious tradition, such as Christianity, as compared with another broad religious tradition such as Islam, Judaism, and so on. To invoke Jesus’ name is to render the prayer “sectarian.” Outside of the law, “sectarian” often has a narrower meaning. When used in this narrower sense, it denotes a particular group within a broad religious tradition as compared to another group within that tradition (such as the Old Order Amish within Christianity or the Wahabi within Islam). The broader usage in the caselaw appears to follow from the idea of “nonsectarian” as referring to some sort of ceremonial deist approach to prayer, or prayer that (as Chief Justice Burger put it in Marsh v. Chambers) is in “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” With “nonsectarian” thus understood, “sectarian” is shorthand for “not nonsectarian.”