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A Texas school board can open its meetings with student-led public prayers without running afoul of the Constitution's prohibition against government-established religion, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld a lower court ruling dismissing a lawsuit against the Birdville Independent School District. The suit was filed by the American Humanist Association and a graduate of Birdville High School.

The panel said student-led prayers for legislative bodies differ from unconstitutional prayers in public schools.

The panel noted a 2014 Supreme Court ruling allowing prayers at a town council meeting in Greece, New York, and said the prayers at the Birdville school board fall under that "legislative prayer exception."

"It would be nonsensical to permit legislative prayers but bar the legislative officers for whom they are being primarily recited from participating in the prayers in any way," Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote for the panel. "Indeed, the Supreme Court did not take issue with the fact that Town of Greece board members bowed their heads during invocations."

The opinion noted that the Birdville school board meetings are held in an administration building — not in a school. People attending can enter and leave at any time, including during the prayer. It said the board meetings open with a student-led Pledge of Allegiance and a statement that can include a prayer, although the statements are sometimes secular.



Former Catalonia regional government chief Artur Mas is facing a two-year ban from holding public office for going ahead with a vote on the region's independence from Spain despite a Constitutional order against it.

Former Catalonia regional government chief Artur Mas is facing a two-year ban from holding public office for going ahead with a vote on the region's independence from Spain despite a ruling against it, a court in Barcelona ruled Monday.

The judge also required him to pay a fine of 36,500 euros ($38,900) and disqualified from politics for 21 and 18 months respectively two of his aides, former regional vice president Joana Ortega and education councilor Irene Rigau.

In remarks following the court's verdict, Mas said he will appeal the ban to the Supreme Court and that the three former officials are prepared to take the case to European courts because he doesn't trust justice in the country.

"In Spain, the law is not the same for everybody. This is a lie, this is not true," he said during a news conference in Barcelona, flanked by Ortega and Rigau. "We have been condemned for defending ideas that are not liked," Mas said.

The central government declined to comment, but told Spanish public broadcaster TVE that it respected the court's decision.

Monday's sentence said that Mas disobeyed Spain's Constitutional Court when he gathered support from thousands of volunteers to install voting stations.

Ortega and Rigau were "necessary aides" in organizing the vote, the court said. It found the three of them not guilty of administrative wrongdoing, as prosecutors had initially asked for.

Polls consistently show that Catalans who want to break from Spain are a minority among the wealthy northeastern region's 7.5 million inhabitants, although the ranks of those who do want a vote on separation have been swelling since the 2008 economic crisis.

Carles Puigdemont, who succeeded Mas in the regional government, criticized the court's decision and compared it with Monday's announcement by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that she would seek authority for a new referendum on the independence of Scotland.

"What a difference with consolidated and healthy democracies," Puigdemont tweeted.

His coalition government of separatist parties has announced plans to hold a new referendum before the end of September, although central authorities in Madrid have said that such vote will also be illegal.


North Carolina's new Democratic governor and majority Republican legislature are charging at each other in a constitutional game of chicken over their powers, a confrontation that could shape the recent conservative direction of state policies and spending.

The confrontation continues Tuesday, when the two branches of state government appear for a court hearing before the third. A panel of three trial judges will gather in Raleigh to hear lawyers for Gov. Roy Cooper dispute attorneys for the state House and Senate leaders over whether new laws are constitutional.

"This is a fight that involves really the three branches of government. It's one of a series of possible contests that we can see as the governor serves his term in office about who is going to make what decisions," High Point University political scientist Martin Kifer said. "It also has to do with the pace of policymaking. This isn't speeding things up."

GOP lawmakers passed several provisions that reduced the incoming governor's powers during a surprise special legislative session two weeks before Cooper took office Jan. 1. The laws:

— require Cooper's choices to run 10 state agencies to be approved by the GOP-led Senate.

— strip Cooper's control over administering elections and gives Republicans control over state and local elections boards during even-numbered years when elections for major statewide and national office are held.

— slash Cooper's patronage hiring discretion and gives civil service protections to hundreds of political appointees hired by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who narrowly lost to Cooper last fall.

Cooper might not like the increasing number of limits Republicans impose, but he'd better get used to it, attorneys for legislative leaders said in a court filing. The state's constitution and legal precedents have created one of the country's weakest governors, and makes the General Assembly the dominant branch, attorneys for state House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger wrote.


The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to review appeals in three Texas death row cases, including one where a man pleaded guilty to a triple slaying in South Texas.

The high court's rulings moved two inmates closer to execution: LeJames Norman, 31, condemned for the 2005 shooting deaths of three people during a botched robbery of a home in Edna, about 100 miles southwest of Houston, and Bill Douglas Gates, 67, condemned for strangling a Houston woman in 1999. Neither has an execution date.

Norman and an accomplice also now on death row, Ker'Sean Ramey, were convicted in the slayings of Samuel Roberts, 24, Tiffani Peacock, 18, and Celso Lopez, 38, inside the home they shared in Edna, in Jackson County. Roberts' parents discovered the bodies Aug. 25, 2005.

Court records indicated Ramey and Norman believed there was 100 kilograms of cocaine in the house and hoped to steal it, but they never found any drugs. Norman was arrested trying to cross a bridge into Brownsville from Mexico about five months after the killings. He pleaded guilty to capital murder, leaving a jury to decide only on punishment. Norman's appeal raised questions about the competence of his trial attorneys.

Texas prison records show when Gates was arrested for the slaying of Elfreda Gans, 41, at her Houston apartment, the Riverside County, California, man was on parole after serving six years of two life prison terms in California for robbery, assault on a peace officer and possession of a weapon by a prisoner. His appeal also questioned whether his trial lawyers were deficient.

The third case refused by the high court involved prisoner Michael Wayne Norris, whose case was returned by a federal district judge in 2015 to his trial court in Houston for a new punishment hearing. A federal appeals court last year upheld that decision. Norris has been on death row nearly 30 years for fatally shooting a Houston mother and her 2-year-old son.

Patrick McCann, Norris' attorney, said Monday the ruling involved legal procedural point related to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.


Congress returns to Washington this week to confront dramatic decisions on health care and the Supreme Court that may help determine the course of Donald Trump's presidency.

First, the president will have his say, in his maiden speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. Majority Republicans in the House and Senate will be closely watching the prime-time address for guidance, marching orders or any specifics Trump might embrace on health care or taxes, areas where some of his preferences remain a mystery.

Congressional Republicans insist they are working closely with the new administration as they prepare to start taking votes on health legislation, with the moment finally upon them to make good on seven years of promises to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. House Republicans hope to pass their legislation by early April and send it to the Senate, with action there also possible before Easter.

Republicans will be "keeping our promise to the American people," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said as he sent lawmakers home for the Presidents Day recess armed with informational packets to defend planned GOP changes to the health law.


Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has been a defender of free speech and a skeptic of libel claims, an Associated Press review of his rulings shows. His record puts him at odds with President Donald Trump's disdain for journalists and tendency to lash out at critics.

On other First Amendment cases involving freedom of religion, however, Gorsuch's rulings in his decade on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reflect views more in line with the president and conservatives. Gorsuch repeatedly has sided with religious groups when they butt up against the secular state.

In a 2007 opinion involving free speech, Gorsuch ruled for a Kansas citizen who said he was bullied by Douglas County officials into dropping his tax complaints. "When public officials feel free to wield the powers of their office as weapons against those who question their decisions, they do damage not merely to the citizen in their sights but also to the First Amendment liberties," Gorsuch wrote.



A new court filing detailed allegations that former Baylor University football coach Art Briles ignored sexual assaults by players, failed to alert university officials or discipline athletes and allowed them to continue playing.

The filing is in response to a lawsuit against Baylor and several officials including interim President David Garland by former assistant athletic director Colin Shillinglaw, who said he was falsely accused of mishandling several incidents.

It said that in one case a masseuse asked the team to discipline a player who reportedly exposed himself in 2013. The court filing said Briles texted an assistant coach: "What kind of discipline... She a stripper?"

Briles did not remove defensive lineman Tevin Elliott from the team or notify university officials even though two women accused Elliott of rape in separate incidents in 2012, the court filings noted.

There were several reports of gang rapes involving football players during Briles' tenure. In one alleged incident in 2013, the victim was a Baylor athlete. According to the filing, the woman's coach went to Briles and showed him a list of players the victim had identified.


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