Intro: One of the most highly debated topics involving schools evolves around prayer in school. Both sides of the argument are very passionate about their stance and there have been many legal challenges to include or exclude prayer in school. Background: Before the 1960’s there was very little resistance to teaching religious principles, bible reading, or prayer in school. In fact it was the norm. You could walk into virtually any public school and see examples of teacher led prayer and Bible reading. McCollum v. Board of Education Dist. 71, 333 U.S. 203 (1948) — The court found that religious instruction in public schools was unconstitutional due to a violation of the establishment clause. Court Cases: Most of the relevant legal cases ruling on the issue have occurred over the last fifty years. Over the course of those fifty years the Supreme Court has ruled on many cases that has shaped our current interpretation of the First Amendment in regards to prayer in school. Each case has added a new dimension or twist to that interpretation Engel v. Vitale, (1962) — This case brought in the phrase “separation of church and State”. Court ruled that any type of prayer led by a public school district is unconstitutional. Murray v. Curlett, (1963) — Court rules that requiring students to participate in prayer and/or Bible reading is unconstitutional. Lemon v. Kurtzman, (1971) — Known as the Lemon test. This case established a three part test for determining if an action of government violates First Amendment’s separation of church and state: 1.the government action must have a secular purpose;
2.its primary purpose must not be to inhibit or to advance religion; 3.there must be no excessive entanglement between government and religion. Wallace v. Jaffree, (1985) — This case dealt with a state’s statute requiring a moment of silence in public schools. The Court ruled that this was unconstitutional where legislative record revealed that motivation for the statute was to encourage prayer. Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens, (1990) — Ruled that schools must allow student groups to meet to pray and worship if other non-religious groups are also allowed to meet on school property. Lee v. Weisman, (1992) — This ruling made it unconstitutional for a school district to have any clergy member perform a nondenominational prayer at an elementary or secondary school graduation. Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, (2000) — The court ruled that
students may not use a school’s loudspeaker system for a student led, student initiated prayer.
Abington School District v. Schempp, (1963) — Court rules that reading the Bible over the school intercom is unconstitutional.
Stone v. Graham, (1980) — Made it unconstitutional to post the Ten Commandments on the wall at a public school. Guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools: In 1995, under the direction of President Bill Clinton, then United States Secretary of Education Richard Riley released a set of guidelines entitled Religious Expression in Public Schools. This set of guidelines was sent to every school superintendent in the country with the purpose of ending confusion regarding religious expression in public schools. These guidelines were updated in 1996 and again in 1998, and still hold true today. It is important that administrators, teachers, parents, and students understand their Constitutional right in the matter of prayer in school. Summary of the Guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools 1. Students can participate as long as they aren’t disruptive and school staff is not allowed to encourage nor discourage participation. 2. Schools can’t organize prayer at graduation or organize baccalaureates. They can open facilities to these activities as long as all groups have equal access. 3. Staff can’t start or encourage religious activity and can’t prohibit it. 4. Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach ABOUT religion. Schools also are not allowed to observe holidays as religious events or promote such observance by students. 5. Students can express their religion in any form.
6. Students may distribute religious literature to their classmates on the same terms as other groups are allowed to distribute non-school related literature. 7. Students may wear religious clothing as long as they are permitted to wear clothing with other comparable messages. Arguments For and Against
Those who favor the return of prayer to public schools argue: •The U.S. Supreme Court has replaced freedom of religion,” guaranteed by the Constitution, for freedom from religion. To ban school prayer diminishes the
religious freedom of students who would like to pray and forces them to act according to the dictates of a non-religious minority. •The U.S. Supreme Court has misinterpreted the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. A simple and voluntary school prayer does not amount to the government establishing a religion, any more than do other practices common in the U.S. such as the employment of Congressional chaplains or government recognition of holidays with religious significance and National Days of Prayer. •School prayer would result in many societal benefits. The public school system is tragically disintegrating as evidenced by the rise in school shootings, increasing drug use, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and HIV transmission. School prayer can help combat these issues, would instill a sense of morality and is desperately needed to protect our children. •School prayer would address the needs of the whole person. Schools must do more than train children’s minds academically. They must also nurture their souls and reinforce the values taught at home and in the community. •School prayer would allow religious students an opportunity to observe their religious beliefs during the school day. The U.S. Supreme Court has urged school cooperation with religious authorities for “it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs.” Frequently heard arguments against prayer in public school are: •School prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment which provides that government shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion. Because public schools are government funded, prayer led by school officials or incorporated into the school routine amounts to government-established religion. •School prayer violates the “separation of church and state.” •Public schools are intended for education, not religious observance or proselytization. •Prayer is school is already legal. Students are already allowed to pray on a voluntary basis (in a non-disruptive way) so formal school prayer is unnecessary. •School prayer may lead to intolerance. Public prayer will highlight religious differences of which students may have been unaware. Those students who abstain from school prayer may be ostracized. •School prayer is inherently coercive and cannot be implemented in a way that is truly voluntary. •The public school system is created for all students and supported by all taxpayers. It should therefore remain neutral on religious issues over which
students and taxpayers will differ. •Since no formal school prayer could honor the tenets of all the religions practiced in the U.S., as well as various denominational differences, prayer is better left in the home and religious institution of the individual student’s choice. A related argument is that school prayer usurps the role of parents and religious institutions who desire to provide instruction in keeping with their own beliefs.