Prayer & Public Schools


The Supreme Court has consistently held that public schools may not engage in the teaching of religious beliefs or in the observance of religious practices but they have also reaffirmed that a student does not surrender his/her constitutionally protected freedom of religious expression simply because he/she is enrolled as a student in the public school system.  Therefore a student may carry a bible to public school, may pray alone or in student groups, may wear religious jewelry, may form religiously oriented school clubs and may conduct these club meetings using the school’s facilities provided however that none of these freedoms extend, to the student, a right to disrupt the operation of the school or its teaching mandate.

The relevant “religion in public school” Supreme Court cases, with a brief summary of each, are listed below.  The Good News Club v. Milford Central School case specifically addresses the right of students to form religious clubs and use school facilities to hold club meetings.

Relevant Supreme Court Cases

• McCollum v. Board of Education (1948): Ruling 8-1, the high court struck down a program of “released-time” religious instruction in Champaign , Ill. , public schools because the clergy-led classes violated the separation of church and state.

Wrote Justice Hugo L. Black, “[T]he First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere…. Here not only are the state’s tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the state’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.”

• Zorach v. Clauson (1952): Here the court, ruling 6-3, upheld a released-time program in New York City that allowed students to leave school during the day for religious instruction offsite.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote, “No one is forced to go to the religious classroom and no religious exercise or instruction is brought to the classrooms of the public schools. A student need not take religious instruction. He is left to his own desires as to the manner or time of his religious devotions, if any…. If in fact coercion were used, if it were established that any one or more teachers were using their office to persuade or force students to take the religious instruction, a wholly different case would be presented.”

• Engel v. Vitale (1962): In a 6-1 decision, the high court struck down a New York law that asked students to recite a prayer composed by education officials.

Justice Hugo L. Black wrote, “When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain. But the purposes underlying the Establishment Clause go much further than that. Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion…. The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by a civil magistrate.”

•  Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963): This 8-1 ruling struck down school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in Pennsylvania public schools. (Schempp was combined with Murray v. Curlett, a Maryland case that raised similar issues.)

Observed Justice Tom Clark, “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.”

• Epperson v. Arkansas (1968): In this unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court struck down a religiously motivated Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution in the state’s secondary schools and public universities.

Wrote Justice Abe Fortas, “In the present case, there can be no doubt that Arkansas has sought to prevent its teachers from discussing the theory of evolution because it is contrary to the belief of some that the Book of Genesis must be the exclusive source of doctrine as to the origin of man…. Arkansas ’ law cannot be defended as an act of religious neutrality. Arkansas did not seek to excise from the curricula of its schools and universities all discussion of the origin of man. The law’s effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read. Plainly, the law is contrary to the mandate of the First, and in violation of the Fourteenth, Amendment to the Constitution.”

• Stone v. Graham (1980): This unsigned 5-4 per curiam (by the court) decision struck down a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms.

Observed the court, “This is not a case in which the Ten Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like. Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no such educational function. If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”

• Wallace v. Jaffree (1985): In this 6-3 decision, the high court invalidated an Alabama law that required public schools to set aside time daily for silent meditation or prayer.

Asserted Justice John Paul Stevens, “Just as the right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of a broader concept of individual freedom of mind, so also the individual’s freedom to choose his own creed is the counterpart of his right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority. At one time it was thought that this right merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Islam or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all. This conclusion derives support not only from the interest in respecting the individual’s freedom of conscience, but also from the conviction that religious beliefs worthy of respect are the product of free and voluntary choice by the faithful, and from recognition of the fact that the political interest in forestalling intolerance extends beyond intolerance among Christian sects — or even intolerance among ‘religions’ — to encompass intolerance of the disbeliever and the uncertain.”

• Edwards v. Aguillard (1987): Voting 7-2, the high court struck down a Louisiana law that required “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism in public schools.

Justice Willam J. Brennan wrote, “In this case, the purpose of the Creationism Act was to restructure the science curriculum to conform with a particular religious viewpoint. Out of many possible science subjects taught in the public schools, the legislature chose to affect the teaching of the one scientific theory that historically has been opposed by certain religious sects…. The Establishment Clause, however, ‘forbids alike the preference of a religious doctrine or the prohibition of theory which is deemed antagonistic to a particular dogma.’ Because the primary purpose of the Creationism Act is to advance a particular religious belief, the Act endorses religion in violation of the First Amendment.”

• Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens (1990): In an 8-1 ruling in a Nebraska case, the Supreme Court upheld a federal law requiring public secondary schools to allow student-run religious clubs to meet on school grounds on the same basis as other clubs.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “Although a school may not itself lead or direct a religious club, a school that permits a student-initiated and student-led religious club to meet after school, just as it permits any other student group to do, does not convey a message of state approval or endorsement of the particular religion….To the extent that a religious club is merely one of many different student-initiated voluntary clubs, students should perceive no message of government endorsement of religion. Thus, we conclude that the Act does not, at least on its face and as applied to Westside, have the primary effect of advancing religion.”

• Lee v. Weisman (1992): In this 5-4 decision, the high court extended the school prayer rulings of the 1960s to include public school graduation ceremonies. In a Rhode Island case, the majority ruled that state-sponsored religious worship at commencements is unconstitutional.

Observed Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, “The First Amendment’s Relion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State. The design of the Constitution is that preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere, which itself is promised freedom to pursue that mission…. The Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation. This is the calculus the Constitution commands.”

•  Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000): Ruling 6-3, the court struck down a Texas public school district’s policy of allowing students to vote on whether to have a “student-led” prayer read over a loudspeaker before football games.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherants ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’ The delivery of such a message — over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer — is not properly characterized as ‘private’ speech.”

• Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001): The high court, ruling 6-3, held that a public elementary school in New York must allow a voluntary, evangelistic religious club to meet at the end of the school day if other groups are allowed to use the space. The majority rejected arguments that the club’s presence might lead students to feel coerced to take part in religious activities.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “[T]o the extent we consider whether the community would feel coercive pressure to engage in the Club’s activities, the relevant community would be the parents, not the elementary school children. It is the parents who choose whether their children will attend the Good News Club meetings. Because the children cannot attend without their parents’ permission, they cannot be coerced into engaging in the Good News Club’s religious activities. Milford does not suggest that the parents of elementary school children would be confused about whether the school was endorsing religion. Nor do we believe that such an argument could be reasonably advanced.”

Supreme Court Guidelines to Public Schools

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.

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

Source: My own introduction to the article entitled “60 Years of controversy” which appeared in the February 2008 issue of Church & State published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.