What Does the Law Say About Prayer in School?

Prayer in school
Christopher Futcher/Vetta/Getty Images

One of the most highly debated topics revolves around prayer in school. Both sides of the argument are very passionate about their stance, and there have been many legal challenges about whether to include or exclude prayer in school. Before the 1960s there was very little resistance to teaching religious principles, Bible reading, or prayer in school—in fact, it was the norm. You could walk into virtually any public school and see examples of teacher-led prayer and Bible reading.

Most of the relevant legal cases ruling on the issue have occurred over the last fifty years. The Supreme Court has ruled on many cases that have shaped our current interpretation of the First Amendment in regards to prayer in school. Each case has added a new dimension or twist to that interpretation.

The most quoted argument against prayer in school is that of “separation of church and state.” This was actually derived from a letter that Thomas Jefferson had written in 1802, in response to a letter he had received from the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut concerning religious freedoms. It was not or is not part of the First Amendment. However, those words from Thomas Jefferson led the Supreme Court to rule in the 1962 case, Engel v. Vitale, that any prayer led by a public school district is unconstitutional sponsorship of religion.

Relevant Court Cases

McCollum v. Board of Education Dist. 71, 333 U.S. 203 (1948): The court found that religious instruction in public schools was unconstitutional due to a violation of the establishment clause.

Engel v. Vitale, 82 S. Ct. 1261 (1962): The landmark case concerning prayer in school. This case brought in the phrase “separation of church and State”. The court ruled that any type of prayer led by a public school district is unconstitutional.

Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963): Court rules that reading the Bible over the school intercom is unconstitutional.

Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203 (1963): Court rules that requiring students to participate in prayer and/or Bible reading is unconstitutional.

Lemon v. Kurtzman, 91 S. Ct. 2105 (1971): Known as the "Lemon test." This case established a three-part test for determining if an action of government violates the First Amendment's separation of church and state:

  1. the government action must have a secular purpose;
  2. its primary purpose must not be to inhibit or to advance religion;
  3. there must be no excessive entanglement between government and religion.

Stone v. Graham, (1980): Made it unconstitutional to post the Ten Commandments on the wall at a public school.

Wallace v. Jaffree, 105 S. Ct. 2479 (1985): This case dealt with a state’s statute requiring a moment of silence in public schools. The Court ruled that this was unconstitutional where the legislative record revealed that motivation for the statute was to encourage prayer.

Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens, (1990): Ruled that schools must allow student groups to meet to pray and worship if other non-religious groups are also allowed to meet on school property.

Lee v. Weisman, 112 S. Ct. 2649 (1992): This ruling made it unconstitutional for a school district to have any clergy member perform nondenominational prayer at an elementary or secondary school graduation.

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, (2000): The court ruled that students may not use a school’s loudspeaker system for a student-led, student-initiated prayer.

Guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools

In 1995, under the direction of President Bill Clinton, the United States Secretary of Education Richard Riley released a set of guidelines entitled Religious Expression in Public Schools. This set of guidelines was sent to every school superintendent in the country with the purpose of ending confusion regarding religious expression in public schools. These guidelines were updated in 1996 and again in 1998, and still hold true today. It is important that administrators, teachers, parents, and students understand their constitutional right in the matter of prayer in school.

  • Student prayer and religious discussion. Students have the right to engage in individual and group prayer as well as religious discussion throughout the school day so long as it is not conducted in a disruptive manner or during school activities and/or instruction. Students may also participate in before or after school events with religious content, but school officials may not discourage nor encourage participation in such an event.
  • Graduation prayer and baccalaureates. Schools may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation or organize baccalaureate ceremonies. Schools are permitted to open their facilities to private groups so long as all groups have equal access to those facilities under the same terms.
  • Official neutrality regarding religious activity. School administrators and teachers, when serving those capacities, may not solicit or encourage religious activity. Likewise, they also may not prohibit such activity.
  • Teaching about religion. Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion. Schools also are not allowed to observe holidays as religious events or promote such observance by students.
  • Student assignments. Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, art, orally, or in the written form.
  • Religious literature. Students may distribute religious literature to their classmates on the same terms as other groups are allowed to distribute non-school related literature.
  • Student garb. Students may display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Meador, Derrick. "What Does the Law Say About Prayer in School?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-law-and-prayer-in-school-3194664. Meador, Derrick. (2020, August 26). What Does the Law Say About Prayer in School? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-law-and-prayer-in-school-3194664 Meador, Derrick. "What Does the Law Say About Prayer in School?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-law-and-prayer-in-school-3194664 (accessed March 31, 2023).