The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the courts, guarantees that:
These principles are continuously in a state of creative tension.
Summaries will be posted below of important, recent court rulings that impact on the separation of church and state, starting in 1999-MAR. Court decisions involving prayer inside public school buildings are located elsewhere.
Prayers at public school graduation ceremonies
A 1992 decision "Lee v. Weisman" by the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited "prayer, benediction, or invocation at any graduation ceremonies" if they were directly conducted or sponsored by a public school board. However, lower courts have ruled in recent years that some graduation prayers are legal. Some school boards have attempted to circumvent the 1992 decision by sponsoring prayers indirectly, by authorizing students to compose them and deliver them. More details on this topic.
Prayers at public high school sports events:
Various courts have found that an individual student or group of students may exercise their freedom of religion by initiating impromptu prayer at school sporting events. However, school officials may not add a prayer to the schedule of a game. More details on this topic.
1999: Decision concerning prayers before the Cleveland Board of Education meetings:
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals decided on 1999-MAR-18 that the Board of Education in Cleveland, OH, cannot pray before their meetings. The court ruled that prayers are an illegal endorsement of religion. 1
However, there is probably some wiggle room available to boards: they might be able to engage in a rotating series of prayers, recitations of secular philosophies, secular thoughts on life, etc. This technique replaces prayer to God with a cultural expression, and might be found legal. It would also probably be unacceptable to many members of the boards of education because of the inclusivity of the prayers/statements.
A conflict in Delaware involved the Indian River School Board and its 8,400 students. It is an important case because it helped establish "settled law" on the matter of prayers in public school boards.
The Board has been praying at its meetings since it was founded in 1969. Individual board members give the invocation which may be sectarian or non-sectarian "in the name of a Supreme Being, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah," or any other deity. According to court briefs, the prayers have almost always been Christian. 3
In 2005, two Jewish families launched a lawsuit -- Doe v. Indian River -- to prevent the board from starting their meetings with a sectarian prayer. The board initially won in a ruling by federal District Court Judge Joseph Farnan. He reasoned that the Board is closer to a legislative body than a school. Thus it should be able to open its meetings like the U.S. Congress -- with a prayer. He noted that the board did not use prayers "... to proselytize or advance religion." He concluded that the court "... may not demand anything further" of the board.
Jason Gosselin, attorney for the school district, said:
Gosselin noted that this topic has been the source of many conflicts across the country. He said:
The plaintiffs appealed the case to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The court agreed with the lower court that the key question was whether the Board was closer to a school or to a legislative body. However, they noted that students were often present at meetings and sometimes took part by advising the board. Also, the board sometimes recognized the accomplishments of academic and sports achievements. The court came to the opposite conclusion from the lower court and ruled that board meetings are similar to some school events, like a graduation ceremony. Other courts have generally ruled that school-sponsored prayers have a coercive effect on students and are thus unconstitutional.
They cited a ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, OH. It ruled that prayers before board meetings in Cleveland were barred by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The ruling referred to the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers. 4 It ruled that prayers in legislative assemblies were constitutional:
They quoted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down official prayer in the New York state schools in 1962, Engel v. Vitale:
The text of Doe v. Indian River is available online at USCourts.gov. 7
The story continues in another essay with the appeal of the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.
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