Separation Between State And Religion One of the most common questions asked about public prayer is whether or not it is legal to hold it in a public school. It depends on the type of prayer we are talking about, and who is doing the praying, since people are usually talking about organized classroom prayer, often led by a teacher. The Supreme Court has set a law that states that organized prayer in a public school goes against the First Amendment, whether it’s in the classroom, over the loud speaker, or even at a graduation ceremony. It also applies for Bible readings and when someone says now we will have a moment of silence, which courts will go against also. People feel it is not the government’s business to promote religious exercises, since they can easily be pushed upon young students that have to be at school due to their attendance policies.
A public school has the responsibility to protect every student. This will include children of various religions, as well as children with no religious faith. This does not mean the school should be disrespectful of the important role religion plays for many students. Courts have made it clear that students should have the right to practice their religion, with some limitations. Students are free to pray, read their Bibles and even invite others to join their religious group as long as they are not disruptive of the school or disrespectful of the rights to the other students. A student should not be allowed to pressure or other kids in or on public school grounds.
For example, a student is allowed to pray before meals, read her Bible during study hall, create an art project with a religious theme or invite other students to attend church. These activities are all allowed. In fact, the school might be guilty of violating the student’s free speech and free exercise rights if it tried to stop the religious activities. Students have the right to hang out with their friends for prayer and other religious activities within the rules. .For example, students are permitted to gather around the flagpole for prayer before school begins, as many students do occasionally, as long as the event is not sponsored or endorsed by the school and other students are not pressured to attend. like outside adults, generally have no right to pray with or in the presence of students in a public school.
(4) As representatives of the state, teachers are under an obligation to protect the rights of all students including non-believers. A teacher who abuses this position of trust may be terminated. Students may also meet for prayer and religious study pursuant to the federal Equal Access Act. If a school permits extracurricular student groups to meet during noninstructional time, this Act requires that religious groups be given equal treatment. Again, the Act does not allow teachers or other adults to lead such meetings.(5) The Act applies only to secondary schools as defined by state law.
(See chapter 12 on equal access). The most confusing and controversial part of the current school prayer debate involves graduation prayer. In the 1992 decision Lee v. Weisman , the Supreme Court addressed this issue. The case involved prayers delivered by clergy at middle school commencement exercises in Providence, Rhode Island.
The school designed the program, provided for the invocation, selected the clergy and even provided guidelines for the prayer. The Supreme Court held that the practice violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion. The Justices based their decision on the fact that (1) it is not the business of schools to sponsor or organize religious activities, and (2) students who might have objected to the prayer were subtly coerced to participate. This coercion was not cured by the fact that attendance at the graduation was voluntary. In the Court’s view, few students would want to miss the culminating event of their academic career.
For similar reasons, lower courts have struck down invocations at other public school events such as athletic contests.(6) Confusion arose a year later when the Justices refused to grant an appeal in Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, a Texas case upholding the practice of graduation prayer. Although the Supreme Court has repeatedly cautioned that its refusal to hear one of the thousands of cases docketed with it annually does not mean that the Justices agree with the decision, some are encouraging schools to use the Texas case as a blueprint for circumventing the Supreme Court’s decision in Weisman. And, although the case is binding only in the 5th Federal Circuit (i.e. Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi), it is being urged upon school districts nationwide. Some state legislatures, such as Tennessee’s, have passed laws encouraging schools to pattern their graduation exercises after the Jones decision.
The distinguishing features of the prayer in Jones were: The prayer was student-initiated. That is to say the students voted to have the prayer. The prayer was student-led, as opposed to being led by clergy or other adults. The prayer was nonsectarian and non-proselytizing. Although expert opinion is divided, all three of these factors raise significant questions.
First, it is clear that constitutional rights are not subject to vote. To the contrary, the purpose of the Bill of Rights was to place some rights beyond the reach of political majorities. Thus, the Constitution protects a person’s right to freedom of speech, press or religion even if no one else agrees with the ideas he or she professes. Therefore, it is unlikely that students can vote to suspend the no establishment of religion clause and have organized prayer at a school-sponsored event. It may also be immaterial that a student, as opposed to an adult, leads the prayer.
A graduation exercise is still a school-sponsored event, and the students are still being coerced, however subtly, to participate in a religious exercise that some might find offensive. Finally, the requirement that the prayer be nonsectarian and non-proselytizing not only fails to solve the problems addressed in Weisman, it may aggravate them. While some might like the idea of an inclusive, nonsectarian civil religion, many do not. To some Americans the idea of nonsectarian prayer is offensive. Many Americans, for example, feel compelled to pray in Jesus’s name.
Moreover the Supreme Court made clear in Weisman that even nondenominational prayers may not be established by government in the public schools. In addition, the Jones decision puts courts and school officials in the difficult position of evaluating the content of prayers to determine if they are too sectarian for use in a public school. There is also the thorny problem of determining whether a particular prayer tends to proselytize. Such entanglement of school officials in religious matters could itself be unconstitutional. In fact, a Texas school district already has been sued for discriminating against those who wish to offer more sectarian prayers at graduation exercises. Schools that follow the Jones model should understand the risks involved.
If litigation results, those challenging the prayers (outside the 5th circuit) may prevail(7). More importantly, if certain prayers are offered, some students and parents may feel unwelcome in their own public schools . At the same time, it would seem possible for a school to provide a forum for student speech within a graduation ceremony during which time prayer might occur. For example, a school might choose to allow the valedictorian or class president to open the ceremony in whatever manner he or she wished. If such a student chose to utter a prayer, it seems unlikely it would be found unconstitutional unless the school had suggested or otherwise encouraged the prayer.
It would also seem permissible for the school to allow students to vote whether to include such a forum for student speech during the graduation ceremony. Again, there is a risk to such an approach. By creating a forum for student speech, the school may be stuck with most anything the student wishes to say. While the school would not be required to allow speech that was profane, sexually explicit, defamatory or disruptive, the speech could include political or religious views offensive to many, as well as speech critical of school officials. A far better approach to the graduation prayer dilemma would seem to be a privately sponsored, voluntarily attended baccalaureate service held after school hours, perhaps at a local church. The school can announce the event and even allow it to be held on campus if other community groups are given similar privileges.
In fact, the school is prohibited from discriminating against religious groups in the after-hours use of its facilities. Schools may not, however, sponsor such religious exercises. If a school board continues to insist on some accommodation of religion at the graduation exercise, a genuinely neutral moment of silence might be considered. Although the school prayer debate has caused much confusion for teachers, administrators and board members, most questions are easily resolved if the school will keep in mind the distinction between government (in this case school) speech endorsing religion which the Establishment clause prohibits and private (in this case student) speech endorsing religion which t …