School Prayer Fact Sheet
What is the law of the land regarding prayers in school?
Public schools may not sponsor, supervise, conduct, or encourage any
student to lead, conduct or recite bible readings, religious
invocations or other religious ceremonies in any school activity.
Public school students should not be subjected to any religious
exercises or prayers as part of any school activity.
This prohibition officially dates back to 1962, when the Court said in
Engel v. Vitale that a "denominationally neutral" prayer which students
were told to recite aloud was a violation of the Establishment Clause
of the First Amendment. A year later, the Court again invalidated
government-sponsored prayer and bible reading in public schools in
deciding Abington School District v. Schempp.
Does this include prayers at commencement ceremonies?
Yes. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled on June 24, 1992, in
Lee v. Weisman that prayers at public school commencement ceremonies
are also an impermissible establishment of religion:
"No holding by this Court suggests that a school can persuade or compel
a student to participate in religious exercise."
Speaking for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote: "The
Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a
student as the price of attending her own high school graduation."
"Our decisions in Engel v. Vitale, and Abington School District v.
Schempp, recognize, among other things, that prayer exercises in public
schools carry a particular risk of indirect coercion. ... What to most
believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the
nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may
appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the
machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy."
Can't students who object to prayers at commencements just skip the
graduation ceremony, or stay seated?
The Court roundly rejected the argument of the Rhode Island school that
students who do not want to pray may simply absent themselves from the
prayers or the entire graduation ceremony. Kennedy wrote for the
"Attendance may not be required by official decree, yet it is apparent
that a student is not free to absent herself from the graduation
exercise in any real sense of the term 'voluntary,' for absence would
require forfeiture of those intangible benefits which have motivated
the student through youth and all her high school years."
"To say that a student must remain apart from the ceremony at the
opening invocation and closing benediction is to risk compelling
conformity in an environment analogous to the classroom setting, where
we have said the risk of compulsion is especially high."
It is neither constitutional nor polite to force prayer upon students
or to exclude those whose personal convictions are being violated by a
religious exercise in a public school setting. The duty of public
schools is to be inclusive, not exclusive, to instruct, not
Is prayer permissible if it is "nonsectarian"?
No. The 1992 Supreme Court reaffirmed the 1962 ruling against school
prayers, noting: "It is no part of the business of government to
compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite
as a part of a religious program carried on by government."
Justice Kennedy added: "The question is not the good faith of the
school in attempting to make the prayer acceptable to most persons, but
the legitimacy of its undertaking that enterprise at all when the
object is to produce a prayer to be used in a formal religious exercise
which students, for all practical purposes, are obliged to attend."
What about student-led prayers?
Students leading other students in commencement prayers amounts to the
same violation of state/church separation, in this case having the
added grievance of pitting students against students. As Justice
Kennedy noted in the Weisman decision: "Research in psychology
supports the common assumption that adolescents are often susceptible
to pressure from their peers toward conformity, and that the influence
is strongest in matters of social convention." Forcing a dissenting
student to bear the direct coercion of fellow students may be even
worse than forcing them to fight school administrators who persist in
proselytizing their captive audience.
The Weisman decision ruled that any prayers at graduations bear "the
imprint of the State and thus put school-age children who objected in
an untenable position."
Attempts by students to subvert the Court's wise decision to keep
religion out of public school commencements must not be countenanced by
school officials. They are directly responsible for what occurs at the
graduation ceremonies, as Kennedy pointed out: "At a high school
graduation, teachers and principals must and do retain a high degree of
control over the precise contents of the program, the speeches, the
timing, the movements, the dress, and the decorum of the students."
School officials must comply with the law of the land.
Administrators may not, by passive or active assent, convey to students
that the law of the land may be ignored or subverted. Under our
constitutional republic, the Supreme Court of the United States is the
highest arbiter, and it has consistently ruled that organized prayers
of any kind must not be imposed on students, whether by principals over
the PA system, or by clergy at commencements. To appoint, or permit,
students to stand-in for school officials or clergy, and read prayers
over the podium or PA system, is to engage in the same illegal
promotion of religion and unconstitutional coercion which was found
objectionable by the Court in Weisman.
"It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees
that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in
religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which 'establishes
a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so," wrote
Kennedy for the Court majority.
Keep your schools inclusive and secular.
Graduations are the culmination of 13 years of secular, religion-free
education. Graduation ceremonies may not proselytize their captive
audiences, turning a secular occasion, celebrating an institution of
learning, into a religious ritual. Those who wish to pray about
graduation are free to do so privately, at home or at church. Churches
are free to arrange special services for graduates within their ranks
in their private, tax-free buildings. Religious liberty continues to
flourish in our country not in spite of but because of our strict
separation of church and state.
What other Supreme Court cases govern religion in schools?
In addition to prayer cases, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled
that religion does not belong in schools:
McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212, 1948. Struck down
religious instruction in public schools.
Epperson v. Arkansas 393 U.S. 97, 104 (1968). Struck down a law
forbidding public schools to teach the science of evolution.
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612 (1971). Propounded a guiding
principle for determining constitutionality of many practices. To pass
constitutional muster, a statute or practice must 1) have a secular
purpose, 2) its principal or primary effect must neither advance nor
inhibit religion, and 3) it must not foster excessive government
entanglement. If a practice violates any of those three requirements,
it is unconstitutional.
Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980). Ruled that a statute requiring the
posting of the Ten Commandments in public classrooms is
Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 72 (1985). Ruled unconstitutional a
law authorizing a daily "period of silence not to exceed one minute ...
for meditation or daily prayer."
Two other cases which the Court chose to affirm by not taking on appeal
are also significant:
Tudor v. Board of Education of Rutherford, 14 N.J. 31 (1953), cert.
denied 348 U.S. 816 (1954). By refusing to review it, affirmed a lower
court, ruling the practice of allowing volunteers to distribute free
copies of the Gideon Bible at public schools was a violation. In
January, 1993, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled that
distribution of Gideon Bibles to schoolchildren in an Indiana school is
Douglas County School District and Bd. of Education v. Jager (1989).
Let stand a lower court decision in Georgia that pre-game invocations
at high-school football games are unconstitutional, by refusing to
review an appeal.
Distributed by FFRF, Inc., PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701 (608) 256-8900
This article is reprinted (with permission) from the April
1993 issue of Freethought Today, bulletin of the Freedom
From Religion Foundation.
For more information, write or call
Freedom From Religion Foundation
P. O. Box 750
Madison, WI 53701