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Religious faith can be a powerful force, either for good or evil. When the U.S. Constitution was written, the country's political leaders were well aware of over a century decades of religiously-motivated strife that had resulted in so many deaths throughout Europe. In order to avoid transplanting religious hatreds from Europe to America, they incorporated the Establishment Clause into the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As interpreted by various courts, it requires a separation between church and state. This seems to be a beneficial relationship that has served the country well:
  • Church affiliation and attendance in the U.S. are the highest of all industrialized nations. 
  • The USA has relative peace among followers of different religions, and of no religion. The country has avoided the type of religiously-based conflicts, civil wars, crimes against humanity, and genocides which have occurred in so many other countries.
  • Many of the religious organizations throughout the country are healthy and vigorous.

The principle of separation of church and state affects all government functions, including public schools. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that religious instruction in public school was unconstitutional. In 1963, it ruled that mandatory reading of Bible verses or prayers are similarly unconstitutional. However, the same First Amendment guarantees that students may engage in many forms of non-disruptive personal religious expression, including the wearing of religious clothing and jewelry. They can pray (individually or in student-led groups) on the school bus, at the flagpole, before lunch, in the corridors, in the classroom before and after lessons, at sports events, etc. They can talk freely about religion to other students outside of class. They can distribute religious literature. If there are any student-led clubs in the school, they have the right to organize student-led Bible prayer clubs. Teachers are not allowed to teach any religion as truth. However, they can teach about religion, as long as they meet certain requirements. Finally, public schools cannot require students to recite prayers from a specific religion each morning. More details

What effect would the reinstatement of Christian prayers have?

There is little consensus on this question:

  • Many conservative Christians believe that 
    • Students cannot currently pray in public schools. The Supreme Court has made public schools into religious-free zones where prayer is prohibited.
    • "True freedom of religion means the right to pray and the right to pray anywhere and anytime we choose--whether it be during school hours or not. This freedom must be returned to the people and to our schools! It must not be in the hands of our courts to dictate to us when or where or who can pray!" 1
    • Public school prayer would provide a "moral tapestry for students, teachers and parents" which would reduce problems with drugs, immorality and violence. "...a spiritual awakening would take place in this country." 2
    • Some have linked many negative factors in society to the 1963 decision by the courts to ban mandatory prayer from the public schools. One web site includes: "crime, venereal disease, premarital sex, illiteracy, suicide, drug use, public corruption, and other social ills..." 5 Other sources included reductions in SAT scores, school killings, and increases in both teen-age pregnancy, and teen-age suicide. 
  • Many liberal Christians, secularists, and civil-rights promoters believe that:
    • Students are guaranteed the right to pray in many locations, situations and times within the public schools.
    • The principle of separation of church and state has helped both religion and secular interests. One necessary result of this principle is that public schools remain neutral on religion. Mandatory prayer is a form of religious indoctrination. 
    • Freedom of religion also includes the right to not be coerced into reciting a prayer from another religion.
    • The rise in social problems since 1962 cannot be blamed on the lack of prayer in the public schools, any more than they can be attributed to the increase in the number of color television sets, or the reduction in racial segregation -- both of which have also changed greatly since the early 1960's.
    • Forcing non-Christians to recite a Christian prayer would infringe upon their freedom of religion, and create anger against the Christian majority. Some Christians would believe that their religion is superior to all others, and that the government promotes Christianity. Mandatory prayer would expose non-Christian students to religiously-based harassment. The end result would be more marginalized, angry students in the public schools, and citizens in the community. This is precisely the environment that has caused school violence, including tragedies like Columbine, in the past.

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Public school prayer which preserves religious neutrality:

Public schools must remain neutral with respect to religion:

  • They may not promote or denigrate a particular religion in relation to another religion or to secularism.
  • They may not promote religion over secularism as a superior approach to life.
  • They may not promote secularism over religion as a superior approach to life.

There appear to be two obvious ways in which prayer can be promoted in public schools without violating the necessity for neutrality:

  • A part of the school day could be set aside for a moment of silence. One Web site, 4 the Natural Prayer Project (NPP) recommends that schools follow a suggestion made by Colin Powell: a simple moment of silence. Students would then have the right to pray, meditate, contemplate, study, organize their day, settle and compose themselves, or engage in any other non-disruptive silent activity. The enabling legislation would have to be carefully worded to make certain that it is not being written to sneak prayer into the schools. The end result would be that many students would elect to engage in prayer at school. More details.
  • As stated above, although prayers taught as truth are unconstitutional, a public school course in comparative religion can, (under certain circumstances) be constitutional. It is possible that prayers and statements from a variety of religions and secular philosophies could be read in the classroom without violating the constitution. However they could not be not taught as truth for the students to believe, but would have to be taught as beliefs that various groups in society regard as true. Since the readings would be given each weekday that the school is in session, a full range of religions would be covered; no one religion would be favored over any other. Statements from both religious and secular sources would be included. Thus, the school would not be promoting a religious lifestyle over a secular lifestyle, or vice versa. 

    This procedure would be analogous to a display of the Ten Commandments on the school wall. Just as a Christian prayer repeated daily is unconstitutional, so is a simple, framed copy of the Ten Commandments. But a collage can be constitutional, if it assembles together sets of commandments from many different religions, and sets of secular laws from many different locations and eras in history. It all depends upon balance. A lone copy of the Ten Commandments or a Christian prayer recited repetitively constitutes religious instruction in a particular faith; it is unconstitutional within a public school. A mosaic of religious and secular laws or a variety of religious and secular statements might be considered by the courts to be a historical teaching tool. 

    The procedure could involve the following steps:

    • Create a list of prayers or religious writings derived from local faith groups and moral/ethical statements from secular sources. A minimum of eight faith groups and an equal number of secular sources might make a workable collection. We would recommend most or all of the following religions: Baha'i Faith, Buddhism, conservative Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, liberal Christianity, Native American spirituality, Neopaganism, Judaism, Sikhism, Vodun, etc. [Note that we are treating Christianity as two religions. Although conservatives and liberals share the name "Christianity" and base their beliefs on the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures, their beliefs and practices are so different that they may be considered to represent two different religions.] Added to that list could be any religious group with significant membership in the locality or region. An equal number of statements, could be taken from secular organizations that promote Agnosticism, Atheism, Freethinking,  Humanism, religious freedom, religious tolerance, constitutional guarantees, etc. For example, statements from the American Ethical Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Interfaith Alliance, etc. could be included.
    • Set up a system whereby students or others could add material from other faith groups and secular sources.
    • Set up a system whereby students or others could change the material that is representative of their faith group or secular source.
    • Have each teacher in the school district start the school day by explaining that the purpose of the statement or prayer which follows is to help students learn about the beliefs of other people. Unlike the mathematics, history, science, etc. that is taught later in the class, it is not being presented as truth -- as something that the student is expected to believe. 
    • The teacher would then either read one of the entries or ask for any student in the class to volunteer to perform the task.
    • Set up a committee composed of equal number of religious members, and secularists to oversee the process, mediate any conflicts, etc.

    This system would not give preference for any one religion over any other. It would not treat religion as superior to secularism, or vice versa. It might meet all of the constitutional requirements of the First Amendment. Of course, it would have to be tested in the courts before its legality was assured.

    It would promote religious tolerance. It would teach students, and remind them every weekday, that:

    • A great diversity of religions and secular beliefs exist in the country.
    • The school, and thus the government and the public, value religious freedom. It emphasizes that everyone has the right to freely pursue their own faith, beliefs and religious practices.
    • The school, government, and public values the right of individuals to hold secular beliefs instead of following a religious path.
    • Various religions promote entirely different belief systems about deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.
    • Many different religious and secular points of view are worth studying.

    Some public school boards in the Canadian province of Ontario have a system that is vaguely similar to the above. After the Ontario Court of Appeal, ruled in 1988-SEP-23 on religious exercises in public elementary schools, the Ministry of Education instituted a new policy. Boards can elect to have students simply sing the national anthem, "O Canada." When they wish to include additional material, they are to include readings that impart social, moral, or spiritual values which are representative of Ontario's multicultural society. In practice, readings are chosen from the scriptures of various religions (including prayers) and from secular writings. A period of silence is also allowed in addition to, or in place of readings. 7,8


The author of this essay and the other members of the group sponsoring this web site have no professional expertise in U.S. constitutional law. Before taking any action based on the contents of this essay, we would urge you to first consult with a lawyer skilled in this field.

Related essays on this site:


  1. "Brief history of the school prayer debate," Truth Broadcasting Company, at: http://www.truthbroadcasting.org/ 
  2. Rev. Doug Jones, quotation from the movie "School prayer: a community at war," at http://www.schoolprayer.com/ 
  3. William Murray, "Let us pray: A plea for prayer in our schools,"
  4. Natural Prayer Project is available at:
  5. "What happened when the praying stopped," at: http://www.forerunner.com/forerunner/ 
  6. Orange Campus Library of the Rancho Santiago College has a list of hyperlinks to various other websites dealing with prayer in the public schools. See: http://www.rsccd.org/ad/library/pages/oclib/orhmpage/
  7. "Opening or closing exercises in public elementary and secondary schools," Ministry of Education, Government of Ontario. Policy/Program Memorandum No.108. See: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/108.html 
  8. "Regulation to amend Regulation 262 of revised regulations of Ontario, 1980 made under the Education Act," at: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/108a.html 
  9. "Religion in the public schools: A joint statement of current law," at: http://www.aclu.org/issues/religion/relig7.html

Copyright © 2000
Originally written: 2000-MAY-23
Latest update: 2000-OCT-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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