Prayer in Public School - Overview of Governing Constitutional Principles
The history of prayer in public school is a story of legal interpretation. The relationship between religion and government in the United States is governed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which both prevents the government from establishing religion and protects privately initiated religious expression and activities from government interference and discrimination. The First Amendment thus establishes certain limits on the conduct of public school officials as it relates to religious activity, including prayer.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001); Everson v. Board of Educ., 330 U.S. 1 (1947). Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals, and the line between government-sponsored and privately initiated religious expression is vital to a proper understanding of the First Amendment's scope. As the Court has explained in several cases, "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect." Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 302 (2000).
Prayer in Public School - Drawing the Line of Permissible Expression
The Supreme Court's decisions over the past forty years set forth principles that distinguish impermissible governmental religious speech from the constitutionally protected private religious speech of students. For example, teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities. Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962); School Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963). Nor may school officials attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 599 (1992). Such conduct is "attributable to the State" and thus violates the Establishment Clause. Weisman, 505 U.S. at 587.
Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer, students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969). In addition, the Supreme Court has made clear that "private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression." Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753, 760 (1995). Moreover, not all religious speech that takes place in the public schools or at school-sponsored events is governmental speech. Santa Fe, 530 U.S. at 302. For example, "nothing in the Constitution ... prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day," and students may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other conversation or speech. Santa Fe, 530 U.S. at 313.
Prayer in Public School - Our Country's Legacy
It wasn't until the early 1960's that prayer in public school was "outlawed" by a new interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the history of the U.S. includes prayer and Bible readings in all sorts of public places, including schools. In 1782, the United States Congress passed the following resolution: "The Congress of the United States recommends and approves the Holy Bible for use in all schools."
William Holmes McGuffey is the author of the McGuffey Reader, which was used for over 100 years in U.S. public schools with over 125 million copies sold until it was stopped in 1963. President Lincoln called him the "Schoolmaster of the Nation." McGuffey declared: "The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our notions on the character of God, on the great moral Governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions. From no source has the author drawn more conspicuously than from the sacred Scriptures. From all these extracts from the Bible I make no apology."
Of the first 108 universities founded in America, 106 were distinctly Christian, including the first, Harvard University, chartered in 1636. In the original Harvard Student Handbook, rule number 1 was that students seeking entrance must know Latin and Greek so that they could study the Scriptures: "Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, (John 17:3); and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of him (Proverbs 2:3)."