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Nickell v. Franklin Township Community School Corp.

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

August 17, 2017




         This matter is before the Court on a Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65 by Plaintiff Duane Nickell (“Dr. Nickell”) (Filing No. 10). Dr. Nickell challenges the constitutionality of the policy and practice of offering prayers at the beginning of school board meetings held by Defendant Franklin Township Community School Corporation (“FTCSC”). He seeks a declaration that the prayer practice violates the First Amendment and an injunction prohibiting the school board from offering a prayer at the beginning of its public meetings. For the following reasons, Dr. Nickell's Motion for Preliminary Injunction must be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Dr. Nickell has taught physics and mathematics at various high schools in Marion County, Indiana and has taught physics at Franklin Central High School (the high school within FTCSC) (“the School”) since 2001. In addition to teaching high school, Dr. Nickell has been an adjunct faculty member at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis since 1988. Dr. Nickell is interested in the affairs of FTCSC, has attended school board meetings in the past, and since September of 2016, has regularly attended school board meetings. He plans to continue attending school board meetings. Dr. Nickell retired from his work as a teacher within FTCSC in June 2017 (Filing No. 33).

         FTCSC is a public school corporation in Marion County, Indiana, which operates seven elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school. The Board of School Trustees (the “School Board”) is the governing body of FTCSC. The School Board approves budgets, sets policies for the district after deliberations, appoints members to committees, and can impact taxes assessed in the district. The members of the School Board are elected officials who serve four-year terms.

         The School Board holds monthly meetings, which are open to the public. These meetings are held on school property. Approximately once per calendar year, the School Board invites a handful of students to its meeting to be recognized for winning awards or to present ideas. Students rarely attend School Board meetings and are never required to do so. In 2016, no students or student groups were invited to attend, and in 2015, two student groups were invited to attend. However, not all students who are invited to be recognized at a meeting actually attend the meeting.

         The School Board begins each regular, monthly meeting with a prayer given by one of the School Board members. The prayers are Christian in orientation, mentioning “Jesus” or “Christ”. The prayers primarily seek wisdom and guidance for School Board members. As a regular agenda item, the prayer is given by a member of the School Board after the “call to order”. Since at least 1986, the School Board's prayer practice always occurs at the beginning of the meeting after the call to order and before the mission statement is read. The prayer practice consists of having a School Board member offer a prayer of his or her own choice on a rotating basis. FTCSC does not control the content of any School Board member's prayer and has no policy establishing what type of prayer is or is not allowed. Likewise, there is no policy of nondiscrimination.

         The School Board member offering the prayer prays aloud while standing at the front of the meeting room. The prayer practice does not involve asking the audience to participate. During the prayer, audience members respond in a variety of ways. Individuals who attend the meetings generally are quiet during the prayer, and some individuals bow their head.

         On November 22, 2016, Dr. Nickell filed a Complaint requesting declaratory judgment and injunctive relief for violations of the First Amendment based on the Christian prayers offered at FTCSC's public School Board meetings. Dr. Nickell objects to prayers being given in the public School Board meeting setting. He believes the prayers send a message of non-inclusion to members of the community who are not Christian. Soon after filing his Complaint, Dr. Nickell filed his Motion for Preliminary Injunction.


         “A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right.” Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 24 (2008). Granting a preliminary injunction is “an exercise of a very far-reaching power, never to be indulged in except in a case clearly demanding it.” Roland Mach. Co. v. Dresser Indus., Inc., 749 F.2d 380, 389 (7th Cir. 1984) (citation and quotation marks omitted). When a district court considers whether to issue a preliminary injunction, the party seeking the injunctive relief must demonstrate that:

(1) it has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of its claim; (2) no adequate remedy at law exists; (3) it will suffer irreparable harm if preliminary injunctive relief is denied; (4) the irreparable harm it will suffer without preliminary injunctive relief outweighs the irreparable harm the nonmoving party will suffer if the preliminary injunction is granted; and (5) the preliminary injunction will not harm the public interest.

Platinum Home Mortg. Corp. v. Platinum Fin. Group, Inc., 149 F.3d 722, 726 (7th Cir. 1998). The greater the likelihood of success, the less harm the moving party needs to show to obtain an injunction, and vice versa. Girl Scouts of Manitou Council, Inc. v. Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Inc., 549 F.3d 1079, 1086 (7th Cir. 2008).

         III. ...

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