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bullet "Public schools can neither foster religion nor preclude it. Our public schools must treat religion with fairness and respect and vigorously protect religious expression as well as the freedom of conscience of all other students. In so doing our public schools reaffirm the First Amendment and enrich the lives of their students". Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley June 1998
bullet "There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights. malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed." Supreme Court of Wisconsin, Weiss v. District Board, 1890-MAR-18.

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Problems with school prayer:

Contrary to the belief of many people, prayer is widely permitted in U.S. public schools. Students can pray in school busses, at the flag-pole, in student religious clubs, in the cafeteria, in the corridors, etc. Alternatively, a student can come early to class, sit quietly, and pray silently. However, a U.S. Supreme Court decision ( Engel v. Vitale; 1962) ruled that prayer is not normally permitted in public school classrooms when a class is in session. It would violate the principle of church-state separation which, according to the Court, is inferred by the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The separation principle is extended to public schools as an arm of the government.

Many conservative Christians, and others, promote the concept of having Christian prayers in public schools. They feel that if students start the day with a prayer, then they will behave in a more spiritual and ethical manner during the day. "Some, like former Secretary of Education William Bennett blame the 1962 decision... for everything from low SAT scores to high teenage pregnancy rates." 1 Others oppose school prayer because:

bullet It violates the principle of church and state.
bullet Forcing non-Christian students to recite a prayer which violates their religious beliefs is repugnant.
bullet Reciting Christian prayers would imply that other religions are inferior. Non-Christians might become marginalized and ridiculed by the majority of fellow students. This concern has become more prominent since the Columbine shooting in Littleton CO. That tragedy, and many similar shootings, were caused by one or more students being rejected by others in the student body. 

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An alternative to school prayer:

One Web site, the Natural Prayer Project (NPP), recommends that schools follow a suggestion made by Colin Powell. He recommends a simple moment of silence at the start of each school day. Students could use this interval to pray, meditate, contemplate or study. 2 A book "An Outrageous Idea: Natural Prayer" written by Patty Jo Cornish and illustrated by James Hubbell promotes this concept. 3She writes:

"We have forgotten that we are all in this together. And, we keep separating ourselves from ourselves, by color, by football teams, by clothes, by money, by creed, by greed, by boundaries, by age, and so on and on. We need something to pull us all together. Natural Prayer could be that miracle. It includes everyone, even the non-believers."

A moment of silence would allow students with religious beliefs as diverse as Atheism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Neopaganism, etc. to participate together; some would pray; others would reflect on the upcoming day; others would meditate. There would be provision for all. A moment of silence could contribute to acceptance of diversity within the student body, and eventually lead to less violence on campus.

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Is a moment of silence constitutional?

Court rulings on "moment of silence" laws have been mixed:

bullet Alabama:  In Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an Alabama "moment of silence" law was unconstitutional. It had allowed public schools in the state to start each classroom day with a moment "for meditation or voluntary prayer." The court decided 6 to 3 that the legislature's sole purpose in passing the law was to promote religion. Their ruling "cited several statements from legislative records that revealed a desire to sponsor prayer in the state's public school system." In addition, the preamble to the law stated that the purpose of the law was to circumvent the ban on school prayer. 

The Alabama legislature passed a new moment of silence law during 2001-MAY. 
bullet Virginia: This state has had a law on the books since 1976, which permitted school districts to implement 60 seconds of silence at the start of each school day. A new law came into effect on 2000-APR-1. It requires all Virginian public school students to observe a moment of silence . Kent Willis, director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the legislation because he sees its policies as "potential openings to unconstitutional prayer in schools." The ACLU challenged the law on two bases:
bullet It violated the principle of separation of church and state because it encouraged students to pray.
bullet It allowed for prayer during the moment of silence.

The law was supported by lawyers of the State of Virginia who argued persuasively that the legislation had a secular purpose, and favored neither religion nor a secular lifestyle. Attorney General Mark Earley said: "A moment of silence will contribute to maintaining order and discipline in our classrooms and allow students time to thoughtfully prepare themselves for the upcoming educational activities of the day." 5

In 2000-OCT, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled in a 15 page decision that the law was constitutional. He wrote, in part: "The court finds that the Commonwealth's daily observance of one minute of silence act is constitutional. The act was enacted for a secular purpose, does not advance or inhibit religion, nor is there excessive entanglement with religion...Students may think as they wish -- and this thinking can be purely religious in nature or purely secular in nature. All that is required is that they sit silently" 6

The ACLU expects to appeal the ruling.

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Related essays on this web site:

bullet School prayer: introductory essay
bullet Praying in public schools -- legally
bullet Position of U.S. political parties on school prayer
bullet Teaching about religion and the Bible
bullet Prayers at sports events
bullet Prayers at graduation ceremonies
bullet Recent developments
bullet Renting school facilities to community groups
bullet Students' religious jewelry and clothing
bullet Equal Access Act regarding student clubs
bullet What the Bible says about public prayer
bullet Separation of church and state issues

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Sources of additional information:

bullet The U.S. Department of Education guidelines for religion in the public schools at: 
bullet The National Congress of Parents and Teachers and Freedom Forum's "A parent's guide to religion in the public schools," at:
bullet Freedom Forum's "A teacher's guide to religion in the public schools," at: * **
bullet National Bible Association and the First Amendment Center's "The Bible & Public Schools," at: *

* This is in an Acrobat PDF file. You can obtain a free software Adobe Acrobat reader.
** This book can be downloaded as either an Adobe Acrobat PDF file or a Microsoft Word DOC file.

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  1. "Constitutional amendment on school prayer or moment of silence," ACLU, (1996), at: 
  2. The Natural Prayer Project is available at:
    bullet Email:  
    bullet Website: 
    bullet Phone: (858) 573-0751
    bullet Fax: (858) 573-0752
    bullet Postal address: NPP, 6231 Caminito Andreta, San Diego, CA, 92111-72029
  3. Patti Jo Cornish, "An outrageous idea: natural prayer." Currently out of print. The online book store may be able to obtain a copy.
  4. Jeremy Leaming, "Virginia school district considers Lord's Prayer, moment of silence," First Amendment Center, at:
  5. Adrienne Mand, "ACLU doesn't like sound of school silence," FOX news, at: 
  6. "Court upholds constitutionality of 'silence' law," Baptist Joint Committee. Report from the Capital, 2000-NOV-7, Page 3.

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Site navigation:

Home page > Christianity > Christian history > Prayer > Schools > here

or: Home page > Law menu > Schools > here

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Copyright 1995 to 2001 incl. by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created 1995-APR-27
Last updated 2001-MAY-11
Author: B.A. Robinson

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