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School Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance: Local and State Law

State and Local Laws*

Despite many Supreme Court rulings against public school prayer, the legal picture in states is far from uniform. In some states and cities, politicians and school officials have simply ignored the Court's prayer decisions. Some school districts continue to allow classroom prayer in the absence of any direct legal challenge. Still others invite litigation, seeing in each lawsuit an opportunity to press the judiciary to reconsider the four-decade-old ban. Thus while federal judicial decisions may say one thing, the practical reality is widely acknowledged to be another: ongoing litigation, for years, has been the norm, with school prayer lawsuits frequently seeing national legal organizations representing both sides in what originate as local disputes.

The situation for the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is also mixed. Most states, in fact, still have decades-old laws relating to the pledge. The majority of states mention some form of school participation in their laws, while about 20 states require students to recite it. The final resolution of the case brought by Michael Newdow, however, may lead to more challenges.

During the 2000s, several plaintiffs challenged policies involving school prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance. A select listing of these challenges is as follows:

ALABAMA: A student at Parrish high School in Walker County, Alabama claimed that a teacher and the school principal violated the student's constitutional rights by punishing him for raising his fist during a daily recitation of the Pledge. The student also claimed that the teacher violated his rights by conducting a silent moment of prayer prior to class. A federal district court in Alabama dismissed the student's case, but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 reversed the district court and remanded the case for further consideration.

ARKANSAS: The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 ruled that the practice of the superintendent of the Devalls Bluff School District of opening teachers' meetings with a prayer violated the Establishment Clause.

DELAWARE: Parents of children enrolled in the Indian River School District challenged a practice by the district's school board of opening meetings with a prayer. A federal district court in Delaware in 2005 held that this practice was constitutional.

FLORIDA: Since the early 1990s, lawsuits have contested the policy of the Jacksonville public school board to allow prayer at graduation ceremonies. In 1998, students and parents in the Duval County Public School District successfully sued to block the practice. The full Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, however, declared that student-led prayers at graduation are constitutional. In 2000, the Supreme Court vacated the decision and sent it back to the appeals court for reconsideration. One year later, the Eleventh Circuit again decided that the practice did not violate the Constitution.

LOUISIANA: A student at the Tangipahoa Parish School District in 2005 challenged the practice of the local school board of opening its meetings with an invocation. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled that the practice violated the Establishment Clause.

NEBRASKA: A student in Madison County, Nebraska sued the local school district after a member of the district's school board recited the Lord's Prayer during a graduation ceremony. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the practice did not violate the student's rights under the First Amendment.

PENNSYLVANIA: A Pennsylvania statute enacted in 2002 required students in all public, private, and parochial schools to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A private school challenged the statute in federal court. The Third Circuit in 2004 ruled that the statute violated the school's right to freedom of expressive association.

TEXAS: A plaintiff sought a declaration in federal court in Texas that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 summarily dismissed the case.

VIRGINIA: In 2005, parents of children enrolled in the Loudoun County Public Schools challenged the Virginia Recitation Statute, which required the daily, but voluntary, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the statute did not violate the Constitution.

*Important Notice and Disclaimer: State laws are constantly changing -- contact an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

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