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Home > Area Issues > Prayer in Public Schools

Lawbutton48Questions about the proper role of religion in public education continue to reverberate across the nation. With our country becoming increasingly diverse, it’s important that educators, principals, superintendents, school board members, parents and students understand what public schools can and cannot do when it comes to religion.  For an in-depth discussion of this issue, Chapter Two of the book Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights, written by Anne Marie Lofaso, Associate Professor of Law at West Virginia University, examines what the courts have said about this issue and provides and provides clear, concise guidelines to common questions on the subject.

Prayer and the Public Schools

Religion, Education and Your Rights

Lawbutton48As battles over church-state separation have escalated in recent decades, so too have misconceptions about the role of religion in public schools. Has prayer been expelled from our schools, as some people claim?  Has Bible reading been banned?  Must teachers avoid all mention of religion?  The answer to these questions is "no."  Public schools are not permitted to sponsor worship, but that does not mean that they must be "religion-free zones."  In order to clear up some of the misunderstandings about religion and the public schools, it is important for Americans to have some guidelines.

Few issues in American public life engender more controversy than religion and public education.  Unfortunately, this topic is all too often shrouded in confusion and misinformation.  When discussing this matter, it's important to keep in mind some basic facts.  Ninety percent of America's youngsters attend public schools. These students come from homes that espouse a variety of religious and philosophical beliefs.  Given the incredible diversity of American society, it's important that our public schools respect the beliefs of everyone and protect parental rights.  The schools can best do this by not sponsoring religious worship.  This principle ensures that America's public schools are welcoming to all children and leaves decisions about religion where they belong: with the family.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court has been vigilant in forbidding public schools and other agencies of the government to interfere with Americans' constitutional right to follow their own consciences when it comes to religion.  In the landmark case of Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 [1962], the justices ruled 6-1 that official prayer had no place in public education.

This decision is widely misunderstood today.  The court did not rule that students are forbidden to pray on their own; the justices said that government officials had no business composing a prayer for students to recite.  The Engel case came about because parents in New York challenged a prayer written by a New York education board.  These Christian, Jewish and Unitarian parents did not want their children subjected to state-sponsored devotions.  The high court agreed that the scheme amounted to government promotion of religion.

In the following year, 1963, the Supreme Court handed down another important ruling dealing with prayer in public schools.  In Abington Township School District v. Schempp, the court declared school-sponsored Bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer unconstitutional.

Since those rulings, a myth has sprung up asserting that Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a prominent atheist, "removed prayer from public schools."  In fact, the 1962 case was brought by a group of New York parents who had no connection to O'Hair, and the 1963 case was filed by a Unitarian family from the Philadelphia area.  O'Hair, at that time a resident of Baltimore, had filed a similar lawsuit, which the high court consolidated with the Pennsylvania case.

It is important to remember that in these decisions the Supreme Court did not "remove prayer from public schools".  The court removed only government-sponsored worship.  Public school students have always had the right to pray on their own as class schedules permit.

Also, the Supreme Court did not rule against official prayer and Bible reading in public schools out of hostility to religion.  Rather, the justices held that these practices were examples of unconstitutional government interference with religion.  Thus, the exercises violated the First Amendment.

Nothing in the 1962 or 1963 rulings makes it unlawful for public school students to pray or read the Bible (or any other religious book) on a voluntary basis during their free time.  Later decisions have made this even clearer.  In 1990, the high court ruled specifically that high school students may form clubs that meet during "non-instructional" time to pray, read religious texts or discuss religious topics if other student groups are allowed to meet.

The high court has also made it clear, time and again, that objective study about religion in public schools is legal and appropriate.  Many public schools offer courses in comparative religion, the Bible as literature or the role of religion in world and U.S. history.  As long as the approach is objective, balanced and non-devotional, these classes present no constitutional problem.

In short, a public school's approach to religion must have a legitimate educational purpose, not a devotional one.  Public schools should not be in the business of preaching to students or trying to persuade them to adopt certain religious beliefs. Parents, not school officials, are responsible for overseeing a young person's religious upbringing.  This is not a controversial principle.  In fact, most parents would demand these basic rights.

 A passage from the high court's ruling in the 1963 Pennsylvania case sums up well the proper role of religion in public education.

Justice Tom Clark, writing for the court, observed, "Nothing that we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment".  Clark added that government could not force the exclusion of religion in schools "in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion".

 The court's ruling suggested simply that a student's family, not government, is responsible for decisions about religious instruction and guidance.  There was respect, not hostility, toward religion in the court's ruling.

Justice Clark concluded, "The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church, and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind.  We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality".

 

Some critics of the high court's rulings have suggested that these church-state rulings have no precedence in American history.  On the contrary, the decisions are the logical outcome of a debate that has been under way in our country for many decades.

Public education for the masses, as conceived by Horace Mann and others in the mid 19th century, was intended to be "non-sectarian."  In reality, however, schools often reflected the majority religious view a kind of nondenominational Protestantism.  Classes began with devotional readings from the King James Version of the Bible and recitation of the Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer.  Students were expected to take part whether they shared those religious sentiments or not.

Catholic families were among the first to challenge these school-sponsored religious practices. In some parts of the country, tension over religion in public schools erupted into actual violence.  In Philadelphia, for example, full-scale riots and bloodshed resulted in 1844 over which version of the Bible should be used in classroom devotions.  Several Catholic churches and a convent were burned; many people died.  In Cincinnati, a "Bible War" divided the city in 1868 after the school board discontinued mandatory Bible instruction.

Where Faith Groups Stand...

Faith groups that support the First Amendment and oppose government-sponsored prayer in public schools include:

  • American Baptist Churches, USA
  • American Jewish Congress
  • Anti-Defamation League
  • Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
  • Central Conference of American Rabbis
  • Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers)
  • General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists
  • Mennonite Central Committee
  • National Council of Churches
  • National Council of Jewish Women
  • National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council
  • North American Council for Muslim Women
  • Presbyterian Church (USA)
  • Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
  • Soka Gakkai International - U.S.A.
  • The Church of Christ, Scientist
  • The Episcopal Church, USA
  • The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
  • Union of American Hebrew Congregations
  • Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
  • Unitarian Universalist Association
  • United Church of Christ
  • United Methodist Church
  • Women of Reform Judaism
  • The Federation of Temple Sisterhoods

Tensions like this led to the first round of legal challenges to school-sponsored religious activity in the late 19th century.  Several states ruled against the practices. Compelling children to recite prayers or read devotionals from certain versions of the Bible, these courts said, was not the job of public schools.  They declared government-imposed religion a violation of state constitutions and the fundamental rights of conscience.  Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted this view as well, applying the church-state separation provisions of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The high court's decisions have worked well in practice. In 1995, a joint statement of current law regarding religion in public schools was published by a variety of religious and civil liberties organizations.  This statement served as the basis for U.S. Department of Education guidelines intended to alleviate concerns about constitutional religious activities in schools.

These guidelines, which were sent to every public school in the nation, stressed that students have the right to pray or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive.  But the guidelines went on to state that public schools are prohibited from sponsoring worship or pressuring students to pray, meditate, read religious texts or take part in other religious activities.

These are common-sense guidelines, but they are not enough for some people.  Misguided individuals and powerful sectarian lobbies in Washington continue to press for religious majority rule in the nation's public schools.  They advocate for school prayer amendments and other measures that would permit government-sponsored worship in the schools.  They want their beliefs taught in the public schools and hope to use the public schools as instruments of evangelism.

Americans must resist these efforts.  They must protect the religious neutrality of public education.  Being neutral on religion is not the same as being hostile toward it.  In a multi-faith, religiously diverse society such as ours, neutrality is the appropriate stance for the government to take toward religion.  Under this principle, public schools can allow for individual student religious expression without endorsing or promoting any specific faith.

The United States has changed since its founding in 1787.  A nation that was once relatively religiously homogeneous has become one of the most pluralistic and diverse on the face of the globe.  Scholars count over 2,000 different denominations and traditions in our country.

The answer to disputes over religion in public schools is simple: Keep the government out of the private religious lives of students.  Leave decisions about when and how to pray (or whether to pray at all) to the home.  This is the course the Supreme Court has adopted, and we are a stronger nation for it.

 As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said in a June 1992 opinion, "No holding of this Court suggests that a school can persuade or compel a student to participate in a religious exercise.... The First Amendment's Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expressions are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State".

 

Americans United Settles Texas Lawsuit Over Religious Activities In Public School

 

Settlement In Medina Valley Dispute Requires District To End Promotion of Religion

 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State [AU] today announced that it has settled a lawsuit over school-sponsored religious activity at the Medina Valley Independent School District in Castroville, Texas.

 

AU filed the lawsuit in May 2011 on behalf of Christa and Danny Schultz, and their two sons, Trevor and Corwyn, both of whom recently graduated from Medina Valley High School. Members of the Schultz family are agnostics and opposed official prayers during the graduation ceremony and other religious activities at the school.

 

Under the terms of the settlement, Document 136-1 filed today in Schultz v. Medina Valley Independent School District, Case 5:11-cv-00422-FB in the U. S. District Court, San Antonio, TX, Medina Valley ISD officials, administrators, teachers, staff and other employees will not initiate, solicit or direct prayers; join students in prayers; or proselytize or invite others to engage in these practices.

 

Schultz v. Medina Valley ISD

U. S. Dist. Ct., W. D. of Texas

Case 5:11-cv-00422-FB


“This settlement brings an end to several practices we believed were unconstitutional and that violated students’ rights,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “I’m glad we were able to resolve this matter out of court.”

 

Also under the settlement:

 

* School district personnel will not display crosses, religious images, religious quotations, Bibles or religious texts, or other religious icons or artifacts on the walls, hallways, and other areas at the school.

 

* The district will not invite speakers, including government officials or community leaders, whom it has reason to believe will proselytize or promote religion during their remarks.

 

* The School District will not ask, request, or invite the audience to stand during any Student Remarks [other than the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of the national anthem]

 

* To the extent that the audience has been asked to stand for a portion of the graduation ceremony [such as the Pledge of Allegiance or national anthem] that precedes a Student Remark, the School District will ask the audience to be seated prior to any subsequent Student Remark.

 

* In the event that a Student Remark contains a prayer or other religious speech, School District Personnel on the stage will not stand

 

* The Medina Valley High School student handbook will contain a section on students’ rights to religious freedom, including the importance of respect for and tolerance of students from all backgrounds and the specific procedures for registering a complaint with district personnel about violations.

 

* The district will provide annual training to all district personnel who interact with students or parents or who supervise those who interact with students or parents. The training will cover a variety of topics related to students’ rights and church-state separation.

 

* The Medina Valley ISD agreed to the payment of $125,000.00 in attorneys' fees and costs to Americans United

 

AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper, who served as lead plaintiffs’ counsel, praised the Schultz family for coming forward and challenging the school district’s promotion of religion.

 

“The Schultz family displayed great courage in standing up for religious liberty and church-state separation in the face of intense community opposition,” Lipper said. “The significant changes in the Medina Valley School District could not and would not have happened without their courageous efforts.”

 

Under the settlement, Case 5:11-cv-00422-FB Document 136-1 Filed 02/09/12, in the Schultz v. Medina Valley Independent School District case, the court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the agreement for 10 years.

 

Lipper called for members of the community to contact AU if they have any information about violations of the agreement, remarking, “If any Medina Valley students, parents, or staff have reason to believe that the School District is not complying with any of the settlement agreement’s requirements, they should not hesitate to call Americans United at (202) 466-3234.”

 

U. S. District Judge Fred Biery, who presided over the case, signed the Order Approving the Settlement on Thursday, Feb. 9. Also filed as part of the Settlement documents is Appendix II which contains Judge Biery's instructive analysis on the nature and history of the legal issues involved in the lawsuit.

 

The District's Press Release claims a "huge victory" for the Medina Valley ISD and its students.

 

A related article can be found in the Houston Chronicle.