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School prayer in the United States

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

School prayer in the United States if organized by the school is largely banned from public elementary, middle and high schools by a series of Supreme Court decisions since 1962. Students may pray privately, and join religious clubs in after-school hours. Public schools are those operated by government agencies, such as local school districts. They are banned from conducting religious observances such as prayer. Private and parochial schools are not covered by these rulings, nor are colleges and universities. Elementary and secondary schools are covered because students are required to attend, and are considered more at risk from official pressure than are older students and adults. The Constitutional basis for this prohibition is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which requires that

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

The first part of the amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion") is known as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, while the second part ("or prohibiting the free exercise thereof") is known as the Free Exercise Clause.

Though each of these clauses originally applied only to the central US government, the Fourteenth Amendment extended the scope of the entire First Amendment to all levels of government, including the state and local levels,[1] thus compelling states and their public schools to adopt an equally detached approach to religion in schools.

Since 1962, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that prayers in public schools are unconstitutional. Social conservatives have been unable to pass a constitutional amendment through Congress that would change that. It is a matter of the government promoting an establishment of religion. The Supreme Court is also ruled that so-called "voluntary" school prayers are also unconstitutional, because they force some students to be outsiders to the main group, and because they subject dissenters to intense peer group pressure. In Lee v. Weisman The Supreme Court held in 1992:

the State may not place the student dissenter in the dilemma of participating or protesting. Since adolescents are often susceptible to peer pressure, especially in matters of social convention, the State may no more use social pressure to enforce orthodoxy than it may use direct means. The embarrassment and intrusion of the religious exercise cannot be refuted by arguing that the prayers are of a de minimis character, since that is an affront to ...those for whom the prayers have meaning, and since any intrusion was both real and a violation of the objectors' rights.[2][3]

School prayer prior to 1962

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common practice for public schools to open with an oral prayer or Bible reading. The 19th century debates over public funding for religious schools, and reading the King James Protestant Bible in the public schools was most heated in 1863 and 1876.[4] Partisan activists on the public-school issue believed that exposing the Catholic school children to the King James Bible would loosen their affiliation to the Catholic Church. In response the Catholics repeatedly objected to the distinct Protestant observations performed in the local schools. For instance, in the Edgerton Bible Case (Weiss v. District Board (1890)), the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of Catholics who objected to the use of the Protestant Bible in public schools. This ruling was based on the state constitution and only applied in Wisconsin. Eventually the Catholics took a large voice and even control in the politics of the major cities. Irish Catholic women – who married late or not at all – began to specialize as teachers in the public schools.[5] The Catholics and some high church groups including German Lutherans, Episcopalians and Jews, set up their own school systems, called parochial schools. Southern Baptists and fundamentalists In the late 20th century began aggressively setting up their own schools, where religion was practiced but no government aid was used. Likewise homeschooling in the late 20th century represented a reaction against compulsory school.[6]

In 1949 Bible reading was a part of routine in the public schools of at least thirty-seven states. In twelve of these states, Bible reading was legally required by state laws; 11 states passed these laws after 1913. In 1960, 42 per cent of school districts nationwide tolerated or required Bible reading, and 50 per cent reported some form of homeroom daily devotional exercise.[7]

A Turning Point: The "Regents' Prayer" and Engel v. Vitale

The media and popular culture often erroneously credit atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair with removing school prayer from US public schools, when the case against recitation of the Lord's Prayer in Baltimore schools was decided by the Supreme Court in 1963. A more significant case had reached the Supreme Court one year prior, suddenly changing the legal climate for school prayer. In 1955, the New York Board of Regents developed a prayer recommended (but not required) for the school districts under its purview. The prayer was relatively short: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country."[1][8] The board stated that the prayer would "combat juvenile delinquency and counter the spread of Communism."[8]

Seven years later, Steven I. Engel, a Jew, was upset to see his son’s hands clasped and his head bent in prayer. He told his son that this was “not the way we say prayers.” Engel, a founding member of the New York Civil Liberties Union, brought action along with Daniel Lichtenstein, Monroe Lerner, Lenore Lyons, and Lawrence Roth, all parents of children in the Long Island, New York public school system, against Union Free School District No. 9 for its adoption and subsequent prescription of the so-called "Regent's prayer", arguing that it constituted the state-sponsored establishment of religion in violation of citizens’ First Amendment rights via the Fourteenth Amendment.[9]

Use of the Regent's prayer was initially upheld in both New York State Court and in the New York Court of Appeals, prompting Engels to petition the US Supreme Court in the Engel v. Vitale case in 1962. With its 8–1 vote to make public recitation of the Regents' Prayer in public schools unlawful, the U.S. Supreme Court made its first-ever decision on prayer in public schools. It made its second in 1963—the Abington School District v. Schempp ruling, which made the corporate reading of the Bible and recitation of the Lord's Prayer unlawful in public schools.[10]

1963 and after

In these two landmark decisions, Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the Supreme Court established what is now the current prohibition on state-sponsored prayer in US schools. While the Engel decision held that the promulgation of an official state-school prayer stood in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (thus overruling the New York Courts’ decisions), Abington held that Bible readings and other public school-sponsored religious activities were prohibited.[11] Madalyn Murray's lawsuit, Murray v. Curlett, contributed to the removal of compulsory Bible reading from the public schools of the United States, and has had lasting and significant effects.

Until the lawsuit, it was commonplace for students to participate in many types of religious activities while at school, including religious instruction itself. Nonreligious students were compelled to participate in such activities and were not usually given any opportunity to opt out. The Murray suit was combined with an earlier case. With the success of the lawsuit, the intent of the Constitution with regard to the relationship between church and state again came under critical scrutiny and has remained there to this day. While students do continue to pray in public schools, even in organized groups such as "See You at the Pole", the lawsuit disallowed schools from including prayer as a compulsory activity required of every student. The success of O'Hair's lawsuit led to subsequent lawsuits by Mormon and Catholic families in Texas in 2000 to limit compulsory prayer at school-sponsored football games.

Following these two cases came the Court's decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), a ruling that established the Lemon test for religious activities within schools. The Lemon test states that, in order to be constitutional under the Establishment Clause, any practice sponsored within state-run schools (or other public state-sponsored activities) must adhere to the following three criteria:[12]

  1. Have a secular purpose;
  2. Must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and
  3. Must not result in an excessive entanglement between government and religion.


Reactions to Engel and Abington were widely negative, with over 150 constitutional amendments submitted to reverse the policy. None passed Congress.[13] Catholics were the most hostile group to the Court decisions.[14] Evangelicals at first were divided, but then came around to the anti-Court position, seeing themselves increasingly as a beleaguered minority in a rapidly secularizing nation.[15]

Many school districts and states attempted to reestablish school-sponsored prayer in different forms since 1962.[16] Since the 1990s, controversy in the courts has tended to revolve around prayer at school-sponsored extracurricular activities. Examples can be seen in the cases of Lee v. Weisman (1992) and Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), where public prayers at graduation ceremonies and those conducted via public address system prior to high school games (at state school facilities before a school-gathered audience) were, respectively, ruled unconstitutional.

Despite their attempts to present a clear stance on school-sponsored religious activity, Engel, Abington, and the cases for which these serve as precedent are cited by some proponents of school prayer as evidence of a contradiction between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses.[17] While the Establishment Clause proscribes the state sponsorship of religion, the Free Exercise Clause forbids state interference in individual religious exercise. Where a state entity moves to accommodate the right to individual religious expression under the latter clause, opponents of that "expression" may cite such accommodation as state "promotion" of one religious activity over another.[18] Regarding the Free Exercise Clause, the courts have consistently stated that students' setting forth of religious views through prayer cannot be forbidden unless such activity can be shown to cause disruption in the school, yet it remains beyond the scope of the state to require such practice.[19] Thus, anyone is allowed to pray in schools in the United States, as long as it is not officially sponsored by the school and it does not disrupt others from doing their work.

The United States Supreme Court: A Political and Legal Analysis discussed the results of a 1991 survey, stating that: "The Court's school prayer decisions were, and still are, deeply unpopular with the public, many politicians and most religions organizations. 95 percent of the population believe in God and some 60 percent belong to a religious organization. In a 1991 opinion poll, 78 percent of Americans support the reintroduction of school prayer."[20] As a result of public support for school prayer in the United States, The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States reports, "the public's support for school prayer was translated by various state legislatures into statutes aiding religious schools and practices."[21] Analysis of multiple polls since the 1970s by sociologist Philip Schwadel showed support for school prayer dipped slightly but remains popular with the majority of Americans, with a recent 2011 poll showing 65 percent support.[22]

Public opinion

Questions regarding whether prayer should be present or absent in the United States public school system have been causing controversy for decades due to the need to allow religious freedom and guarantee the rights of the first amendment in the United States constitution. Although the topic has many opponents as well as those who are indifferent to the issue, a 2014 Gallup poll indicates that the majority of Americans, 61%, are in favor of daily prayer in the classroom and 37% oppose daily worship[23] Results show that those who attend church on a regular basis are 33% more likely to support prayer in schools than those who rarely attend church (82% and 49%, respectively).[24] In addition, political ideology also plays a role in determining attitudes towards prayer in schools. Those who identify as Republican are more inclined to support daily prayer than Democrats and Independents, as 80% of Republicans, 64% of Independents, and 45% of Democrats are in favor.[24] Studies show that these numbers have been steadily dropping since 2001, but the majority of Americans continue to support having religion in the education system.

"Moment of silence"

Despite ongoing debate, there are some instances where religious freedom and secular stability have been temporarily balanced. In the United States, some administrations have introduced a "moment of silence" or "moment of reflection" in which a student may, if he or she wishes to, offer a silent prayer. The US Supreme Court decision in Wallace v. Jaffree (1984) held that a moment of silence in schools for the purpose of individual prayer or meditation constituted a valid application of the Free Exercise Clause, while a moment of silence for the clear intended purpose of a state-approved devotional activity constituted a violation of the Establishment Clause. In this same case, the issue of school prayer was further complicated by a distinction made between a public assembly attended by participants of their own free will, and a public event where attendance is legally required. A voluntarily attended Congress may open sessions with a prayer, but schools full of public pupils may not. Here the US Supreme Court has interpreted the issue as revolving around the degree of a government’s ability to indoctrinate its citizens.[16] If it appears that participants at a state-sponsored event are more likely to influence the State itself, courts may treat prayer as "legislative prayer". If, on the other hand, the State is more likely to influence participants at its events, courts may treat prayer as "state-sponsored" prayer and thereby rule it unconstitutional.[25]


In recent years yoga exercise has been introduced into some public schools in the U.S., despite modern yoga's historical roots as a Hindu religious practice. Advocates for the programs say they help children to relax and concentrate, but critics counter that the programs violate the separation of church and state.[26][27]

See also


  1. ^ a b Marshall, W. P. (1999). "The School Prayer Decisions." Constitutional Commentary, 16(3), 535.
  2. ^ Robert Palestini; Karen Palestini Falk (2002). Law and American Education: An Instructor's Guide. R&L Education. p. 33.
  3. ^ 505 U.S. 577, Syllabus.
  4. ^ Steven K. Green, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution (2012), pp. 40, 88, excerpt
  5. ^ Steven P. Erie, Rainbow's end: Irish-Americans and the dilemmas of urban machine politics, 1840-1985 (1988) pp 61, 89-90, 122, 164.
  6. ^ F. Michael Perko, "Religious Schooling In America: An Historiographic Reflection," History of Education Quarterly 2000 40(3): 320-338 online
  7. ^ Adam Laats, "Our schools, our country: American evangelicals, public schools, and the Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963." Journal of religious history 36.3 (2012): 319-334 at p 321-22.
  8. ^ a b Boston, Rob. "How Five New York Families Ended Coercive Prayer In America's Public Schools." Church & State 65.6 (2012): 12. MasterFILE Complete. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.
  9. ^ Engel v. Vitale. (1999). Supreme Court Cases: The Dynamic Court (1930–1999), N.PAG. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  10. ^ William M.Beaney, and Edward N. Beiser. "Prayer and politics: the impact of Engel and Schempp on the political process." Journal of Public Law 13 (1964): 475+.
  11. ^ School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp. (1999). Supreme Court Cases: The Dynamic Court (1930–1999), N.PAG. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  12. ^ Lemon v. Kurtzman. (1999). Supreme Court Cases: The Dynamic Court (1930–1999), N.PAG. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  13. ^ Geoffrey R. Stone, "In Opposition to the School Prayer Amendment." University of Chicago Law Review 50 (1983): 823-848. online.
  14. ^ Kathleen Holscher, “A Decision that Spits in the Face of Our History”: Catholics and the Midcentury Fight Over Public Prayer and Bible Reading," Catholic Historical Review 102#2 (2016) pp. 340-368.
  15. ^ Laats, "Our schools, our country: American evangelicals, public schools, and the Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963."
  16. ^ a b Wallace v. Jaffree. Great American Court Cases: Vol. 1: Individual Liberties.. Ed. Mark Mikula and L. Mpho Mabunda. (Detroit: Gale, 1999)
  17. ^ Lee v. Weisman. Great American Court Cases. Ed. Mark Mikula and L. Mpho Mabunda. Vol. 1: Individual Liberties. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 7 Sep. 2011.
  18. ^ Establishment Clause. (2006). In L. J. Fundukian & J. Wilson (Eds.), American Law Yearbook 2005 (pp. 60-64). Detroit: Gale.
  19. ^ Preface to "Does Separation of Church and State Threaten Religious Liberty?" (2003). In J. D. Torr (Ed.), Current Controversies. Civil Liberties. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.
  20. ^ McKeever, Robert J. The United States Supreme Court: A Political and Legal Analysis. Manchester University Press. 1997. p 34.
  21. ^ Hall, Kermit. Ely, James W. Grossman, Joel B. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. Oxford University Press. 2005. p 1061.
  22. ^ Jason Koebler. "Study: Catholic, Protestant Support for In-School Prayer Falls". US News & World Report.
  23. ^ Vasilogambros, Matt (2015-09-01). "What Americans Think About the State of Education, School Prayer, And Math". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2018-11-01.
  24. ^ a b Inc., Gallup. "In U.S., Support for Daily Prayer in Schools Dips Slightly". Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  25. ^ School Board Meeting Prayer Ruled Unconstitutional. (2011). Education Week, 31(1), 4. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  26. ^ "Yoga causes controversy in public schools". Associated Press. January 28, 2007.
  27. ^ "Parents, Religious Leaders Want Yoga Out of New York High School". Associated Press. October 2, 2008.

Further reading

  • Badley, Ken. "Fundamentalist and Evangelical perspectives in Education." Journal of Education and Christian Belief 6.2 (2002): 135-148. online
  • DelFattore, Joan. The fourth R: Conflicts over religion in America's public schools (Yale UP, 2004).
  • Dierenfield, Bruce J. The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America (2007)
  • Dolbeare, K. M., & Hammond, P. E. The school prayer decisions: From Court policy to local practice. (U of Chicago Press, 1971).
  • Elifson, K. W., & Hadaway, C. K. (1985). "Prayer in public schools: When church and state collide." Public Opinion Quarterly, 49, 317-329.
  • Fenwick, Lynda B. Should the Children Pray?: A Historical, Judicial, and Political Examination of Public School Prayer (1990) excerpt
  • Gash, Alison, and Angelo Gonzales. "School prayer." Public opinion and constitutional controversy (2008): 62-79.
  • Gaither, Milton. "Why homeschooling happened." Educational Horizons 86.4 (2008): 226-237. online
  • McGuire, Kevin T. "Public schools, religious establishments, and the US Supreme Court: An examination of policy compliance." American Politics Research 37.1 (2009): 50-74. online
  • Muir, W. K. Prayer in the public schools (U of Chicago Press, 1967).
This page was last edited on 27 September 2019, at 16:16
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