Details on State Prayer in Public School Laws
The concept of prayer in public schools remains controversial more than 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against school-led or school-sponsored prayer. In fact, many critics of the 1962 ruling (Engel v. Vitale ) claim that the absence of prayer in public schools is to blame for drug use, violence, and societal decay in general. However, schools may not prohibit students from praying voluntarily as long as it is done silently; does not disrupt others; and does not subject other students to peer pressure. The case for reintroducing school-sponsored prayer has only weakened as the nation continues to become more diverse in general.
This article explores state laws and federal precedent regarding prayer in public schools. See FindLaw's Religion at School section to learn more.
The Federal Ban on School-Sponsored Prayer
Prior to the Court's ruling (Engel v. Vitale ), it was not unusual for public schools to lead students in a Christian prayer at the start of the school day. But this didn't sit well with a group of predominantly Jewish families in Hyde Park, New York who believed the prayer violated their children's constitutional rights. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, ruling 6-1 (Engel v. Vitale, 1962) that school-sponsored prayer violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In reaching its decision, the Court cited the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which protects citizens from governmental establishment of an official religion. Since public schools are government institutions, a school-led prayer violates this principle. And even though the prayer at the center of the Engel case only made reference to a vague "Almighty God," the Court held that it still promoted a group of monotheistic religions and thus violated the Constitution.
Subsequent courts have ruled that student prayer must be done silently, so as not to marginalize religious minorities.
State School Prayer Laws
Most states changed their statutes with regard to school prayer in order to comply with the 1962 Supreme Court ruling. Federal law required schools to permit only voluntary, silent, and non-disruptive prayer. Some states repealed their school prayer laws entirely, but others passed legislation allowing for a one-minute period of silence during which a student may pray, meditate, or engage in silent activity.
But not all states changed their laws. Others flagrantly defied federal law by enacting new statutes permitting various types of school-sponsored prayer. Regardless, statutes allowing this type of prayer in public schools are invalid and may not be enforced. States that still have unconstitutional school prayer laws on the books include:
- Alabama: "From henceforth, any teacher or professor in any public educational institution within the State of Alabama, recognizing that the Lord God is one, at the beginning of any homeroom or any class, may pray, may lead willing students in prayer, or may lead the willing students in the following prayer to God" [a vaguely Christian prayer is included in the statutory language]
- Montana: "A publication of a sectarian or denominational character may not be distributed in any school. Instruction may not be given advocating sectarian or denominational doctrines. However, any teacher, principal, or superintendent may open the school day with a prayer."
- North Dakota: "A student may voluntarily pray aloud or participate in religious speech at any time before, during, or after the school day to the same extent a student may voluntarily speak or participate in secular speech." [students may not "pray aloud," according to federal law]
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District
The Supreme Court is considering a school prayer case this term. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Court has been asked to determine whether a football coach's prayer on the 50-yard line following a game, which was joined in by some students, is school-sponsored prayer that violates the Establishment Clause. The coach contends that his prayer is constitutionally protected speech and religious expression and not a governmental endorsement of religion. A decision is expected in June 2022.
Religion Used in an Academic Context
The prohibition on school-sponsored prayer does not include the use of religious imagery, scriptures, or discussion of religious ideas in an academic context. Without a basic understanding of Christianity, for example, students would have a difficult time studying the Renaissance. Generally, any mention of religion or use of religious imagery must serve a secular purpose.
If you have additional questions about the legality of prayer in public schools, contact an education law attorney in your state.
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