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Religion and prayer in U.S. public schools

Part 4 of four parts

Factors to consider about
prayers in school (Continued).
List of landmark court rulings.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay.

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Factors to consider about prayers in school (Continued):

bulletMany deeply Christian and other religious parents and children who pray regularly regard enforced, state written prayers to be deeply offensive and a violation of fundamental human rights.

bulletSome jurisdictions have allowed objecting students to leave the room and thus be excused from reciting a prayer. However, this action may subject students to later physical abuse and/or harassment by their peers.

bulletTo require students to recite a Christian prayer implies state recognition of Christianity as a religion of special status in the country. Many students and parents will interpret this as implying that religions other than Christianity are of inferior status. That can promotes conflict among faith groups and intolerance towards minority religions.

bullet Attempting to decide what prayers should be used can result in inter-denominational conflict among Christians. More conservative groups might ask for prayers which deal with sin, Satan, Hell and the necessity of being saved. Mainstream groups may want to write prayers which emphasize the love of God and responsibilities to one's fellow humans.
bulletThe freedom for parents and a school system to require children to recite a state-written prayer conflicts with the rights of parents and students who wish freedom from compulsory prayer. Some jurisdictions have reached various compromises that balance the rights and desires of opposing groups:

bullet Some schools institute a moment of silence that students can use to pray silently, or meditate, or simply center themselves.

bullet Most schools allow any interested students to gather outside the classroom in the school to pray as a group.

bullet In Canada, some school systems have a list of prayers drawn from a variety of religions that are found in the state or province. These prayers are read in sequence by a volunteer. Students are not required to recite the words; they can simply remain silent. This approach has a valuable educational component. Students learn a little about many religions. They realize that there are many different religions in the world and that society recognizes that all have worth.

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List of landmark court rulings concerning religion in the public schools:

bullet 1948: The U.S. Supreme Court  struck down religious instruction in public schools in their McCollum v. Board of Education decision.
bullet 1954: The Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling,  Tudor v.  Board of Education against the distribution of Bibles by outside groups like the Gideons.
bullet 1960: Madalyn Murray O'Hair sued the Baltimore MD school system on behalf of her son William J Murray, because he was being forced to participate in prayer in schools.
bullet 1962: The Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale, disallowed a government-composed, nondenominational "Regents" prayer which was recited by students .
bullet 1963: In a number of major decisions (Murray v. Curlett; Abington Township School district v. Schempp; etc.) mandatory Bible verse recitation was ruled unconstitutional.
bullet 1993: The case Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School District involved a fundamentalist Christian group that was refused permission to rent the school in the evening to show a video produced by Focus on the Family. The court found for religious group because the school district had previously allowed non-religious groups to rent the building in the evening.
bullet 2000: In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a conflict arose over student-led, student-initiated prayer over a school's loudspeaker system before football games. The school district argued that this did not violate the First Amendment because the prayer was student initiated and school led. The court ruled against the school district on the basis that the loudspeaker system that the students used for prayer was owned by the school.

2001: Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) is a fundamentalist Christian group that attempts to evangelize students from kindergarten upwards. They find that if CEF succeeds in the religious conversion of a child, then their concept of salvation can sometimes spread to the child's entire family. CEF has created a series of Good News Clubs in public schools aimed at students aged 5 to 12. They typically meet immediately after the end of the final class of the day. The Milford Central School in Milford NY denied Rev. Stephen D. Fournier access to the public school for his club. His wife and daughter sued the school in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York. The case is called The Good News Club v. Milford Central School.

Rev. Fournier said:

"I see this as a free speech case. I believe that we should have the same rights as any other group, and we shouldn't be excluded simply because we speak of God during the course of our club. It's a matter of wanting to use space in a building. We're not trying to start a national church. I don't want a national religion more than anyone else does." 1

This case is special because the CEF classes start in the afternoon minutes after the final class -- not many hours later in the evening as in the Lamb's Chapel case in 1993. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said:

"Public schools have every right to limit the use of their facilities to protect children from outside groups. This case deals with a religious group that targets children for evangelism. We believe the group does not have a constitutional right to evangelize on elementary school grounds right after classes end, and we hope the Supreme Court agrees." 2

The school district's policy has been to rent rooms for "social, civic, and recreational meetings and entertainment events and other uses," but not to religious groups. The federal trial judge and a three judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled against the club. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Eleven Attorneys General for the states of Alabama, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. filed briefs in support of CEF. A joint brief, also in support of CEF, was filed by the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; the National Council of Churches; the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; the American Muslim Council; the First Church of Christ, Scientist; the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); the General Board of Church & Society of the United Methodist Church and the A.M.E. Zion Church.

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the appeal. During 2001-JUN they ruled in favor of CEF. Their ruling states in part that the majority of Justices:

"... disagreed that something that is 'quintessentially religious' or 'decidedly religious in nature' cannot also be characterized properly as the teaching of morals and character development from a particular viewpoint. What matters for purposes of the Free Speech Clause is that we can see no logical difference in kind between the invocation of Christianity by the Club and the invocation of teamwork, loyalty, or patriotism by other associations to provide a foundation for their lessons." 8

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Rob Boston, "Evangelism, Public Schools And The Supreme Court," Church and State, 2001-JAN, at:
  2. "Good News Club v. Milford Central School," Wikipedia, as on 2016-MAR-10, at:

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Copyright 1995 to 2016 by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created 1995-APR-27

Last updated 2016-JUL-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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