School prayer has remained a subject of national debate in the United States throughout the 20th Century. Engel v. Vitale ushered in an era in which school prayer was effectively forbidden; however, with the passage of the Equal Access Act in 1984, some forms of school prayer were again sanctioned. The Department of Education now issues a guide to help school administrators practically apply congressional laws and Supreme Court decisions concerning school prayer. An international perspective shows that current U.S. policy towards school prayer is relatively unique, as most developed countries disallow prayer in public schools.
Keywords Constitutionally Protected Prayer; Equal Access Act; Establishment Clause; First Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment; Freedom of Religion; Freedom of Speech; Free Exercise Clause; Moment of Silence; Prayer in School; Separation of Church and State
For much of the 20th Century and into the 21st, school prayer has been the focal point of an ongoing debate about the role of religion in American society. The question of the legality of prayer in public schools brings together a number of important concepts in American government and legal theory. Opponents and proponents of school prayer couch their arguments in such major constitutional issues as the separation of church and state, the right to free speech, the right to free exercise of religion, and the respective powers of local, state, and national governments. Since hearing its first case on the issue in 1962, the United States Supreme Court has handed down at least one decision dealing with school prayer in each successive decade. All of this makes school prayer an enduring and highly significant topic in the fields of education and law.
School prayer is a practical as well as a theoretical point of contention. Besides understanding and navigating the legal dimensions of this issue, school officials must also take into consideration local public opinion and community needs in order to formulate district policy. The United States educational system, rooted as it is in local and state educational agencies, necessitates that each individual school administrator decide how to apply Supreme Court rulings and national laws concerning religion in public schools. The Clinton and George W. Bush administrations have both released guides intended to help local districts accomplish this task.
The debate over school prayer shows no signs of ending in the near future. However, several principles have been established with as much consensus as can be expected. An understanding of these, as well as of the history of prayer in public schools and the constitutional points crucial to the debate, will provide a solid foundation for further inquiry into any aspect of this multifaceted subject.
Until the early 20th Century, prayer was an accepted aspect of public education. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, America remained a de facto Christian nation, and public school curriculum reflected this fact. The contemporary, mainstream debate about prayer in public schools actually began in 1948, when the Supreme Court handed down its first decision on the issue of religion in public schools, ruling in Illinois ex. rel. McCollum v Board of Education that it is unconstitutional to conduct religious education within public school buildings ("Keeping the Faith," 2000). This decision formed a basis for later decisions on school prayer. Since then, there have been two distinct periods in the history of school prayer. During the first, which lasted from approximately 1962 - 1984, school prayer was virtually excised from public schools. The public debate about school prayer during this period focused on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the principle of separation of church and state. The second period in the history of school prayer began in 1984 and continues into the present. This period has witnessed a limited return of prayer in public schools, with public debate about the issue emphasizing the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, expression, and religion.
Engel v. Vitale
The watershed moment that inaugurated the first of these periods came in 1962, when the Supreme Court handed down its most important decision regarding prayers in public schools to date. In Engel v. Vitale the Court ruled a non-denominational prayer used in New York public schools unconstitutional because it violated the doctrine of the separation of church and state. In 1963, all voluntary prayer and Bible readings were banned as well ("Keeping the Faith," 2000).
For the next 20 years, religion virtually disappeared from public schools. Not only were prayers and Bible readings absolutely abolished, but discussion of religion was also excised from textbooks and curriculum. Students were directed not to speak about religion in the classroom; in other words, to "leave their religion at the schoolhouse door" (Haynes, 2006). Most administrators preferred to err on the side of caution. Rather than make potentially controversial decisions concerning contexts in which school prayer might be legal, administrators applied a zero-tolerance policy to school prayer. They interpreted the far from conclusive Supreme Court decisions as leaving no place at all for religion or prayer in public schools (Walsh, 2003).
The Equal Access Act
All of this changed in 1984, when Congress passed the Equal Access Act, which opened the second distinct period in the history of prayer in public schools. This piece of legislation was designed to correct the widely held perception that religious speech was prohibited in public schools (Balk, 2001). The Equal Access Act mandated that all students and student groups be given equal access to school facilities. It also prohibited discrimination based on the content of student speech. The most important ramifications of this act were on school clubs. The law states that if a school allows its students to form any school clubs, then it must sanction the formation of all school clubs, even if a club's focus is religious in nature. Student groups were granted a level of autonomy by this legislation, as schools could no longer sponsor, participate in, direct, or otherwise control the activities of student groups (Balk, 2001).
One effect of the Equal Access Act was to reintroduce prayer, in certain very specific contexts, back into public schools. Students now had the articulated legal right to form religious groups, including prayer groups and Bible study groups. So long as these groups were formed and run by students, they could engage in prayer within public school facilities, albeit not during instruction time.
Following the passage of the Equal Access Act, the debate over school prayer shifted. While in earlier decades the debate addressed one's freedom from a state established religion, new discussions about school prayer emphasized the student's right to freedom of speech and religious expression (Haynes, 2006). Previously, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment had been used to argue that school prayer violated the prohibition against the establishment of state religion. Now, the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause was being used to argue that a ban on school prayer violated a student's right to the free exercise of religion, free speech, and free expression. Once it was clear that some speech about religion was allowed in public schools if it was initiated by students, advocates of school prayer began attempting to reintroduce prayer to non-curricular school events, such as graduation ceremonies and sports competitions. The Supreme Court also bolstered school prayer supporters when, in 1985, it issued unofficial guidelines on how legislation calling for a moment-of-silence during the school day should be crafted in order to be constitutional (Davis, 2003). Since then, many state legislatures have passed moment-of-silence legislation, which effectively allots time during the school day for students to say a silent prayer or engage in some other form of thoughtful reflection.
The Supreme Court has ruled on the legality of prayer at various extra-curricular school functions. In 1992, in Lee v Weisman, the Court declared prayer at graduation ceremonies to be unconstitutional. In this particular case, the prayer recited was not student-initiated, but part of a speech given by a religious leader chosen by school administrators as a graduation speaker. Thus, rather than prohibit all prayer at extra-curricular events, this ruling prohibited only prayer sponsored or endorsed by school authorities (Balk, 2001). In 2000, the Supreme Court similarly ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District v Doe that student-led prayers...
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