Why US Public Schools Don't Have a Prayer

Prayer is Still Allowed, but Only Under Certain Conditions

School children saying the Lord’s Prayer in 1963
Students Recite Lord’s Prayer in 1963. Laister / Stringer

 Students at America’s public schools can still -- under certain specific conditions -- pray at school, but their opportunities to do so are dwindling fast.

In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Union Free School District No. 9 in Hyde Park, New York had violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by directing the districts' principals to cause the following prayer to be said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day:

"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."

Since that landmark 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings that may result in the elimination of organized observances of any religion from America's public schools.

The latest and perhaps most telling decision came on June 19, 2000 when the Court ruled 6-3, in the case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, that pre-kickoff prayers at high school football games violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, typically known as requiring the "separation of church and state.". The decision may also bring an end to the delivery of religious invocations at graduations and other ceremonies.

"School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it (implies to) members of the audience who are non-adherents that they are outsiders," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in the Court’s majority opinion.

While the Court's decision on football prayers was not unexpected, and was in keeping with past decisions, its direct condemnation of school-sponsored prayer divided the Court and honestly angered the three dissenting Justices.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, along with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, wrote that the majority opinion "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."

The 1962 Court's interpretation of the Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,") in Engle v. Vitale has since been upheld by both liberal and conservative Supreme Courts in six additional cases:

  • 1963 -- ABINGTON SCHOOL DIST. v. SCHEMPP -- banned school-directed recital of the Lord's Prayer and reading of Bible passages as part of "devotional exercises" in public schools.
  • 1980 -- STONE v. GRAHAM -- banned the posting of the the Ten Commandments on public school classroom walls.
  • 1985 -- WALLACE v. JAFFREE -- banned observance of "daily moments of silence" from public schools when students were encouraged to pray during the silent periods.
  • 1990 -- WESTSIDE COMMUNITY BOARD. OF EDUCATION. v. MERGENS -- held that schools must allow student prayer groups to organize and worship if other non-religious clubs are also permitted to meet on school property.
  • 1992 -- LEE v. WEISMAN -- outlawed prayers led by members of the clergy at public school graduation ceremonies.
  • 2000 -- SANTA FE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT v. DOE -- banned student-led pre-game prayers at public high school football games.

But Students Can Still Pray, Sometimes

Through their rulings, the court has also defined some times and conditions under which public school students may pray, or otherwise practice a religion.

  • "[A]t any time before, during or after the school-day," as long as your prayers do not interfere with other students.
  • In meetings of organized prayer or worship groups, either informally or as a formal school organization -- IF -- other student clubs are also allowed at the school.
  • Before eating a meal at school -- as long as the prayer does not disturb other students.
  • In some states, student-led prayers or invocations are still delivered at graduations due to lower court rulings. However, the Supreme Court's ruling of June 19, 2000 may bring this practice to an end.
  • Some states provide for a daily "moment of silence" to be observed as long as students are not encouraged to "pray" during the silent period.

What Does 'Establishment' of Religion Mean?

Since 1962, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that in "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," the Founding Fathers intended that no act of the government (including public schools) should favor any one religion over others. That's hard to do, because once you mention God, Jesus, or anything even remotely "Biblical," you have pushed the constitutional envelope by "favoring" one practice or form of religion over all others.

It may very well be that the only way to not favor one religion over another is to not even mention any religion at all -- a path now being chosen by many public schools.

Is the Supreme Court to Blame?

Polls show that a majority of people disagree with the Supreme Court's religion-in-schools rulings. While it's fine to disagree with them, it is not really fair to blame the Court for making them.

The Supreme Court did not just sit down one day and say, "Let's ban religion from public schools." Had the Supreme Court not been asked to interpret the Establishment Clause by private citizens, including some members of the Clergy, they never would have done so. The Lord's Prayer would be recited and the Ten Commandments read in American classrooms just as they were before the Supreme Court and Engle v. Vitale changed it all in June 25, 1962.

But, in America, you say, "the majority rules." Like when the majority ruled that women could not vote or that Black people should ride only in the back of the bus?

Perhaps the most important job of the Supreme Court is to see to it that will of the majority is never unfairly or hurtfully forced on the minority. And, that's a good thing because you never know when the minority might be you.

Where School-Sponsored Prayer is Required

In England and Wales, the School Standards and Framework Act of 1998 requires that all students in state-run schools participate in a daily “act of collective worship,” which must be of “a broadly Christian character,” unless their parents request that they be excused from taking part. While religious schools are allowed to mold their act of worship to reflect the school’s specific religion, most religious schools in the United Kingdom are Christian.

Despite the 1998 law, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools recently reported that about 80% of secondary schools were not providing daily worship for all students.

While England’s Department of Education has stressed that all schools must maintain religious prayer in schools in order to reflect the beliefs and traditions of the predominantly Christian country, a recent BBC study found that 64% of students do not take part in daily acts of worship or prayer. In addition, a 2011 BBC survey revealed that 60% of parents believed that the daily worship requirement of the School Standards and Framework Act should not be enforced at all. 

On June 19, 2000, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in the case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that pre-kickoff prayers at high school football games violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, typically known as requiring the "separation of church and state." 

"School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it (implies to) members of the audience who are non-adherents that they are outsiders," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in the Court’s majority opinion.

While the Court's decision on football prayers was not unexpected and was in keeping with past decisions, its direct condemnation of school-sponsored prayer divided the Court and honestly angered the three dissenting Justices.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, along with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, wrote that the majority opinion "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."

However, on June 27, 2022, a far more conservative U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in favor of a high school football coach who claimed the constitutional right to pray on the 50-yard line after games joined by those players who wished to participate. The decision was based largely on a lower court's finding that the school had told the coach to cease the midfield prayers because they could be viewed as the school’s endorsement of religion.

The case began in 2015 when Bremerton, Wash., school administrators instructed Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy to stop holding brief voluntary on-field prayer gatherings after the end of games.

Writing for his five fellow conservatives, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said that Kennedy’s prayers are protected by the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and free exercise of religion and that the school district’s actions had not been justified.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. Mr. Kennedy is entitled to summary judgment on his religious exercise and free speech claims,” Gorsuch wrote.

Writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that Kennedy's prayer sessions were neither private speech nor harmless. “This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation's longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state,” wrote Sotomayor.

A joint stipulation filed in Washington state district court on October 25, 2022 by attorneys representing Kennedy and lawyers for Bremerton School District stated that "Kennedy is to be reinstated to his previous position as assistant coach of the Bremerton High School football team on or before March 15, 2023."

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Longley, Robert. "Why US Public Schools Don't Have a Prayer." ThoughtCo, Nov. 1, 2022, thoughtco.com/public-school-prayer-3986704. Longley, Robert. (2022, November 1). Why US Public Schools Don't Have a Prayer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/public-school-prayer-3986704 Longley, Robert. "Why US Public Schools Don't Have a Prayer." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/public-school-prayer-3986704 (accessed November 29, 2022).