RELIGION IN THE
U.S. PUBLIC SCHOOLS
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: 1995 to 1999
Recent court cases, negotiations, and state laws affecting prayer activities inside public school
buildings are listed below. Other court rulings on separation of church and state
issues outside the school building are listed elsewhere. These include prayer at public school sports events, graduation ceremonies etc.
Some of these laws are clearly unconstitutional. They place local school boards
in a difficult position. If they refuse to implement these laws, their funding
may be cut. If they follow the laws, they become vulnerable to lawsuits that
they will undoubtedly lose. The cost of these court actions could impoverish
small school districts.
||1984: The Federal Equal Access Act was passed. This effects
all public secondary schools that receive federal funds. Among other provisions, it
requires that religious clubs be permitted in public schools, if other clubs which are
also not related to the curriculum are already allowed. These religious groups must be run by
the students themselves, and must not be convened during class time. Membership in the group
must be voluntary. More details|
||1995-APR: Document issued: A coalition of 37
Christian, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Scientology, Secular, Sikh, and Unitarian groups,
from the American Humanist Association to the National Association of
Evangelicals issued a document: "Religion in the Public Schools: A
Joint Statement of Current Law." covering topics from student prayers, to
religious persuasion and harassment, religious holidays, religious garb, etc. 1|
||1995-JUL-12: School talk: President Bill Clinton gave a talk to James Madison High School in Vienna, VA. He said in part:
"nothing in the 1st Amendment converts our public schools to religion-free zones
or requires all religious expression to be left at the schoolhouse door."|
||1995-AUG-10: Federal guidelines: Responding to a directive from the
President, the federal Department of Education issued a memo to public school
superintendents which discussed religious freedoms in schools. Some principles
||students can read religious books, say a prayer before meals and pray before tests, etc.
to the same extent that they may engage in comparable secular non-disruptive activities.
||In informal settings (cafeterias, hallways, etc.) students may pray and may discuss
religious topics with other students, just as they may talk about other subjects.
||Students can proselytize with other students; however they cannot engage in religiously
||No student can be coerced into participating in any religious activity.
||Teachers and administrators cannot discourage or promote religious activity because of
its religious content; this applies to anti-religious activity as well.
||Schools can teach about religion and its role in society; they can teach about the Bible
as literature. But they cannot provide religious instruction.
||Students can distribute religious literature in the same way that they are permitted to
distribute non-religious literature.
||Students may be released to attend religious classes at other location; teachers and
administrators cannot encourage or discourage students from taking advantage of such
||Schools can teach about common civic values, but they must be neutral with respect to
||1995-NOV: An amendment to the US
constitution was introduced to congress by Representative Ernest Istook
(R-OK) on 1995-NOV-28. It would have over-ruled the traditional separation of church and
state and allow school prayer in public schools. His amendment had the support of the Christian
Coalition and some other very conservative Christian groups. But it received major
opposition from many other Christian groups who value church-state separation. Many
non-Christian groups were also greatly concerned about this amendment.|
||1996-NOV: Mississippi - Supreme Court decision on prayer: The U.S. Supreme
Court elected to not review a decision by a Mississippi Federal court. The latter had
found a state school prayer law unconstitutional. It had allowed students or teachers to
conduct organized prayer sessions at school assemblies, sports events, over the
intercom, or in school classrooms. This decision left the Mississippi law
||1998-APR-4: Alabama Law on silent meditation: House bill HB19 in Alabama was passed as Act
98-381. It requires that every public school classroom in the state begin each day with a
"brief period of quiet reflection for not more than 60 seconds with the
participation of each pupil in the classroom." This same act also repeals
Section 16-1-20.1, Code of Alabama 1975, relating to a period of silence for meditation in
the public schools. We suspect that the latter had been declared unconstitutional by the
courts. The new law took effect on 1998-APR-27.|
|1998-MAY-29:Federal guidelines on religion: The U.S. Department
of Education updated and re-issued the 1995-AUG guidelines. 3,4
Sections that deal with student garb and religious excusals were revised to reflect the
Supreme Court's finding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
was unconstitutional. Because that act is no longer in force, schools are now freer to
decide whether students can wear religious garb such as yarmulkes and head scarves to
class. Also schools now can allow or not allow students to be excused from classes that
conflict with their religious beliefs. Secretary Riley made three recommendations to local
school boards and teachers:
- to recognize that in an increasingly diverse religious society that every school board
should adopt a policy on religious expression
- to inform teachers early on about the role of religion in public schools through
workshops and schools of education
- to actively inform parents about student's rights to religious expression as well as
freedom of conscience.
President Clinton discussed prayers in the public schools in a radio
The guidelines were re-issued without change on 1999-DEC-18. They
are available online. 6
||1998-JUN-4: Federal - Constitutional Amendment: The Istook
proposed constitutional amendment had passed through the committee stage, but did not
receive the 2/3 majority vote which would have been needed in the House to allow it to
proceed to the Senate. Also, on 1998-JUN-4, Senator Inhofe (R-OK) proposed a bill in the
Senate which is almost identical to the final wording of the Istook Amendment.
||1999-FEB: Michigan - Prayer chapels: Darryl Redmond, a church
pastor and the new head of the Detroit Board of Education, is proposing that prayer rooms
be established in all Detroit public schools. Board member Margaret Betts said that
such rooms should be created "where a person can go and meditate or pray."
She would "be surprised if any other board members" oppose the
suggestion. "The day we took prayer out of our school is the day we changed
the personality of the whole environment...We've got to bring what's right back."
Even if visits to the chapels were optional, it is virtually certain that they will be
declared unconstitutional. Chapels or special rooms set aside for religious purposes would
require that public money be spent constructing and maintaining the rooms. But of even
greater importance is that the chapels' mere existence would violate the establishment
clause of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. That portion of the Bill of Rights has
been interpreted repeatedly by the courts as prohibiting government endorsement and
promotion of religion in the public schools. 7
||1999-MAR: New Hampshire prayer bill: House Bill 398 is being sponsored by 8
state legislators. It would allow individual school districts to have students recite the
Christian Lord's Prayer in school. As of 1999-MAR, the bill is in the House
Education Committee. Comments can be made by calling (603) 271-1110 and asking for
the House Education Committee phone.
"194:15-a Lord's Prayer, Silent Individual Reflections and the
Pledge of Allegiance in Public Elementary Schools. As a continuation of the policy of
teaching our country's history and as an affirmation of the freedom of religion in this
country, a school district may authorize the recitation of the traditional Lord's prayer
and the pledge of allegiance to the flag in public elementary schools. In addition, a
school district may authorize a period of time, after the recitation of the Lord's prayer
and the pledge of allegiance to the flag, for silent reflections representative of a
pupil's personal religious beliefs. Pupil participation in the recitation of the
prayers and pledge of allegiance shall be voluntary. Pupils shall be reminded that the
Lord's prayer is the prayer our pilgrim fathers recited when they came to this country in
their search for freedom. Pupils shall be informed that these exercises are not meant to
influence an individual's personal religious beliefs in any manner. The exercises shall be
conducted so that pupils shall learn of our great freedoms, which freedoms include the
freedom or religion and are symbolized by the recitation of the Lord's prayer and other
silent religious reflections."
||1999-MAR-26: Louisiana - Religious lunch club: ReligionToday reported
that Tangipaho Parish in Hammond, LA, allows religious lunch clubs at three
of their high schools. All prayers at the club meetings are initiated by
students. As noted above, such clubs are allowed and
protected by the constitution as long as secular-based clubs are also
present at the school. However, they must meet certain requirements. One is
that the club cannot be sponsored or led by any person or group outside the
school. These clubs were led by Steve Farmer, the director of Face It
Ministries. The Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties
Union has asked the superintendent to stop the meetings. The clubs will
probably continue, but without Farmer's involvement.
||1999-APR-19: Florida prayer bill: House Bill 1773 was passed by the
Florida House Judiciary Committee. If made into law, it will allow school districts to
impose a "brief opening or closing message, or both" at all
noncompulsory activities. This would presumably include school assemblies, football games,
graduation ceremonies and similar events. The content of the message was not specified.
The original bill was amended to allow "inspirational messages"
including "a prayer or invocation," if a majority of students present
requested it. Carole shields, president of People for the American Way commented:
"There is nothing neutral about this bill. Students of minority faiths should
not, and under our Constitution cannot, be forced to choose between missing a school
activity or being held captive to the denominational prayers of a majority. This is an
offensive and disturbing attack on the First Amendment." 8
On the other hand, many religious folk feel that to not allow prayer when
the majority of students want one is religious discrimination, and a restriction on their
freedom of speech.
||1999-AUG: Indiana - Rental of school facilities by a church: The Northwest
Community Church in Crown Point IN had rented facilities at the Solon
Robinson School in 1998-AUG. This only happened because officials at the
school were not familiar with their school district policy that prohibited
churches from renting school classrooms and gymnasiums. The school later refused
to rent the facilites. They sued the school district in 1999-JUN, accusing them
of violating the church's 1st amendment rights. The Crown
Point School District (IN) overturned a 9 year old policy which had
prohibited religious groups from meeting on school grounds.
"Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law."
Peter Kickbush, "Religious Expression in Public Schools,"
1995-AUG-29, at: http://www.ed.gov/MailingLists/EDInfo/msg00029.html
White House press release, 1998-MAY-29 at: http://www.ed.gov/PressReleases/05-1998/wh-0530.html
R.W. Riley, "Religious expression in public schools," Department of
Education, 1998-MAY, at: http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/08-1995/religion.html
President Clinton's radio address on prayer in the public schools, 1998-MAY-30 at: http://www.pub.whitehouse.gov/uri-res/I2R?urn:pdi:
"Religion and Public Schools," Department of Education,
Conrad Goeringer, AANEWS release, "Detroit school board pres wants
prayer chapels," American Atheists, 1999-FEB-15.
Press release, "Pitting faith against faith: Florida bill would sow
division in public schools," People for the American Way, 1999-APR-9
Copyright 1995 to 2001 incl. by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2001-NOV-19
Author: B.A. Robinson