School Prayer Fact Sheet What is the law of the land regarding prayers in school? Public s

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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 majority: "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 evangelize. 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 unconstitutional. 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 illegal. 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 USA (608) 256-8900 ----------------------------------------------------------


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