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Allow Prayer in Public Schools

QUESTION: What can be done to allow prayer in public schools?


In order to understand what can be done to allow prayer in public schools, we must understand why it is not currently permitted. The Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Beginning in 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted this Clause to mean that public schools must be neutral on subjects of religion. This ended the practice of public prayer which had been common in American public schools until 1962.

What Can Be Done to Allow Prayer in Public Schools? Action by Congress to Amend Constitution
Most efforts to allow prayer in public schools are focused on amending the Constitution to clarify that the Establishment Clause does not prohibit school prayer. These proposed amendments usually are phrased in one of the following ways: “Nothing in the Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools,” or “Nothing in the Constitution shall prevent the inclusion of voluntary prayer in public school.” (Citizens who would like to allow prayer in public schools should contact their U.S. Senators and House Representatives to show their support for a school prayer amendment.)

What Can Be Done to Allow Prayer in Public Schools? Action by State Lawmakers
At the state level, some lawmakers have advocated state laws allowing neutral “moments of silence” in public schools. If these laws are implemented by schools in a way that neither encourages nor discourages students to use the moment for prayer, they could be considered constitutional under current law without any change to the U.S. Constitution. (Voters who wish to support this type of law as a way to allow prayer in public schools should contact their state lawmakers about current initiatives and remain alert for referendums on the issue.)

What Can Be Done to Allow Prayer in Public Schools? Action by the Supreme Court
It is possible that the Supreme Court could reverse itself and hold that the Establishment Clause does indeed allow prayer in schools, as was the prevailing interpretation prior to 1962. Some believe that the Court’s current interpretation of the Establishment Clause is overly broad and that the Court exceeded its authority in interpreting the phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” as a prohibition of school prayer. Those opposing the Court’s current interpretation argue that the Establishment Clause was drafted only to prevent the government from establishing an official state religion or denomination and was not meant to prohibit all religious expression in government settings. (Citizens seeking reform through the court system may wish to contact their lawmakers about judicial reform accountability acts, constitutional restoration acts, and their support for the confirmation of federal judges who take strict constructionist views of the Constitution.)

What Can Be Done to Allow Prayer in Public Schools? Action by Students
Students can take advantage of ways that the law currently will allow prayer in public schools. Student speakers at assemblies and activities such as sporting events may offer public prayers under certain conditions - -where the school district has chosen the speakers by neutral criteria that neither favors or disfavors religion and has allowed students to retain primary control over the content of their speech. Because in these situations the content of the speech is attributable to the student and not the school, the prayers do not violate the Establishment Clause and are protected by the speakers’ First Amendment rights. The law also provides that students may express their beliefs about religion in school assignments, both written and oral. Therefore students may submit written prayers or say prayers in front of the class where it is appropriate to the assignment, for example assignments involving writing or reciting poetry. Students may also pray in groups during non-instructional times, as long as they are not led in prayer by a teacher or other school district representative. Students may organize and attend prayer groups such as “See You at the Pole,” held in the school or on school grounds to the same extent that students are allowed to organize other non-curricular group activities.

What Can Be Done to Allow Prayer in Public Schools? Action By School Districts
School administrators, teachers, and employees can knowledgeably and fairly apply the law to the extent that it already will allow prayer in public schools. Many educators are not aware that students have the right to pray during non-instructional time, as part of a class assignment, or as part of speech over which the school did not control content. Being fearful of potential legal repercussions, they try to stop prayers that are not prohibited by the Constitution. In an effort to allow prayer in public schools to the extent that it is currently legal, school districts can educate their employees -- and teachers can educate their co-workers -- about permissible prayers and the obligation to protect students’ First Amendment rights.

Learn More About School Prayer!

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