School Prayer: Separation of Church and State

Why Johnny Can't Pray -- At School

School children in 1948 being led in prayer by a teacher
Praying at a School Assembly in 1948. Kurt Hulton / Getty Images Archives

While the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S Constitution, it forms the basis of the reason that organized prayer, as well as almost all types of religious ceremonies and symbols, have been banned at U.S. public schools and most public buildings since 1962. 

In 1992, Congress passed a resolution designating January 16 Religious Freedom Day, to honor the anniversary of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, originally authored by Thomas Jefferson. This act inspired and shaped the guarantees of religious liberty eventually found in the First Amendment.

The text of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom reads: “… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced … in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

In essence, the 1786 act affirmed that the right to practice any faith, or no faith, is a foundational freedom of all Americans. It was this right to which Jefferson was referring when he spoke of a “wall of separation” between the church and the state.

Jefferson’s famous phrase came in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. The Baptists were worried that the proposed Constitution would fail to specifically protect their freedom to practice their faith, writing to Jefferson that “what religious privileges we enjoy, we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights,” which is “inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Jefferson wrote back that religious liberty, free from government tampering, would be a key part of the American vision. The Constitution, he wrote, would “restore to man all his natural rights.” In this same letter, Jefferson explained the intent of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This, he said, built a “wall of separation of church and state.”

In the United States, church and state—the government—must remain separate according to the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”

Basically, the establishment clause prohibits federal, state and local governments from displaying religious symbols or conducting religious practices on or in any property under the control of those governments, like courthouses, public libraries, parks and, most controversially, public schools.

While the establishment clause and the constitutional concept of separation of church and state have been used over the years to force governments to remove things like the Ten Commandments and nativity scenes from their buildings and grounds, they have more famously been used to force the removal of prayer from America’s public schools.

School Prayer Declared Unconstitutional

In parts of America, regular school prayer was practiced until 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Engel v. Vitale, ruled it unconstitutional. In writing the Court's opinion, Justice Hugo Black cited the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment:

"It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America. ... Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause ... Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion ...The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate..."

In the case of Engel v. Vitale, the Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9 in New Hyde Park, New York directed that the following prayer must 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."

The parents of 10 school children brought the action against the Board of Education challenging its constitutionality. In their decision, the Supreme Court did indeed find the requirement of the prayer to be unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court had, in essence, re-drawn constitutional lines by ruling that public schools, as part of the “state,” were no longer a place for the practice of religion.

How the Supreme Court Decide Issues of Religion in Government

Over many years and many cases mainly involving religion in public schools, the Supreme Court has developed three "tests" to be applied to religious practices for determining their constitutionality under the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

The Lemon Test

Based on the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, the court will rule a practice unconstitutional if:

  • The practice lacks any secular purpose. That is if the practice lacks any non-religious purpose; or
  • the practice either promotes or inhibits a particular religion; or
  • the practice excessively (in the court's opinion) involves the government with a religion.

The Coercion Test

Based on the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 the religious practice is examined to see to what extent, if any, overt pressure is applied to force or coerce individuals to participate.

The Court has defined that "Unconstitutional coercion occurs when: (1) the government directs (2) a formal religious exercise (3) in such a way as to oblige the participation of objectors."

The Endorsement Test

Finally, drawing from the 1989 case of Allegheny County v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, the practice is examined to see if it unconstitutionally endorses religion by conveying "a message that religion is 'favored,' 'preferred,' or 'promoted' over other beliefs."

Church and State Controversy Will Not Go Away

Religion, in some form, has always been a part of our government. Our money reminds us that, "In God we Trust." And, in 1954, the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Eisenhower, said at the time that in doing so Congress was, "...reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way, we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war."

It is probably safe to say that for a very long time in the future, the line between church and state will be drawn with a wide brush and gray paint.

For more information about an earlier court case dealing with separation of church and state, read about Everson v. Board of Education.

The Roots of 'Separation of Church and State  

The phrase “separation of church and state” can be traced to a letter written by Thomas Jefferson for the purpose of explaining the intent and application of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. In the letter addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, and published in at least one Massachusetts newspaper. Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof', thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 

Historians believe that in his words, Jefferson was echoing the beliefs of Puritan minister Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist church in America, who had in 1664 written that he sensed the need for “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” 

Court Backs Prayer Sessions at School Football Games

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy takes a knee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy takes a knee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

On June 27, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 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 represented the recent tendency of the court's conservative majority to require more accommodation of expressions of religion in public schools and a narrower definition of separation between church and state.

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, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 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.

Gorsuch further stated that the school had relied “exclusively and improperly” on concerns that the prayers would be viewed as a religious endorsement by the school. Lacking evidence that students had been coerced to join in, the majority said, barring coach Kennedy from praying on the 50-yard line at the end of each game was a form of “hostility to religion,” in violation of the Constitution.

Writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that Kennedy's prayer sessions were neither private speech nor harmless. She pointed to the fact that Kennedy had first appealed the school district’s actions to the local media leading to the field being stormed by protestors and students being knocked down. She also said that “schools face a higher risk of unconstitutionally 'coercing ... support or participation in religion or its exercise' than other government entities.”

“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,” Sotomayor wrote.

When questioned about students that might have felt pressured to join in the prayers, Kennedy called the sessions a "15-second thing." Kennedy also said that several students who told him they felt uncomfortable were given full freedom to skip the prayers and no one received special treatment for joining the prayer.

When the school district ordered him to stop holding his post-game prayers, Kennedy, a former Marine, refused. “I fought and defended the Constitution and the thought of leaving the field of battle where the guys just played and having to go and hide my faith because it was uncomfortable to somebody, that's just not America,” he said at a press conference.

Kennedy's media exposure had made him a local celebrity and things in Bremerton had become increasingly tense. At the team’s homecoming game, despite extra police being present, a mainly pro-prayer crowd mobbed the field, knocking down some of the band members and cheerleaders. Surrounded by TV cameras, Kennedy and some players from both teams knelt to pray on the field while a state legislator placed his hand on Kennedy’s shoulder in support. 

The school told Kennedy and his lawyers that while it wanted to accommodate his wish to pray, it wanted a less public demonstration of faith because it said the post-game prayers would be seen as the school’s unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

After Kennedy repeatedly refused to stop his public praying, the superintendent placed him on paid administrative leave. Kennedy did not apply for a new contract the following year. Instead, he sued the school district, contending it had violated his right to free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the school district, and Kennedy appealed to the Supreme Court for the first time. In 2019, the high court rejected his case, with four of the court's conservative justices saying it was premature for the court to consider the legal fight.

After additional proceedings, Kennedy again lost in the lower courts. He asked the Supreme Court for a second time to hear the case, and the justices agreed to do so in January 2022.

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Longley, Robert. "School Prayer: Separation of Church and State." ThoughtCo, Jul. 4, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, July 4). School Prayer: Separation of Church and State. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "School Prayer: Separation of Church and State." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).