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Religion and prayer in U.S. public school systems

Part 2 of four parts.

What the U.S. Constitution prohibits (Cont'd).

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This topic is continued from the previous essay.

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What the constitution prohibits:

The law, as interpreted by various levels of courts, is rapidly evolving in this area. Speaking very generally, the law prohibits public schools from:

bulletRequiring students to recite prayers in class. The main concerns of the courts appear to be twofold:

bullet The compulsive nature of prayer. Although most state laws which attempt to allow school prayer usually permit the student to excuse themselves and wait in the hall, the courts still see an element of compulsion. By separating themselves from the rest of the class, the student risks later harassment and abuse by fellow students.

bullet The risk of religious indoctrination. The 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that there shall be no law regarding the establishment of religion. The courts view prayer in the classroom to be one example of the government approving one religion over another. Even a student-selected, student-given, non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayer still carries with it the stamp of approval of the state - i.e. the state approves of, and is seen to promote, belief in God (and whatever other religious content that the prayer might have).

In a very famous case, Engel v. Vitale (1962), by a vote of 8 to 1, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against mandated daily school prayer. 1 It struck down laws in Pennsylvania and Maryland which mandated Bible reading and prayer that was integrated into the classroom schedule. Justice Stewart formed the sole dissent. He interpreted the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the federal Constitution as prohibiting only the establishment of a state-sponsored church as is done in the UK with the Church of England and in countries which are organized as theocracies. He ruled that the non-denominational nature of the prayer, coupled with the law's provision for students to leave the room during the prayer negated any constitutional challenges.

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bulletPublic prayers at high school games: Various courts have ruled that:

bullet An individual student or group of students is free to pray at a game. To prevent this would violate the student(s) free speech rights.

bullet Teachers, coaches, etc. cannot lead a group prayer. To do so would be viewed as school endorsement of a specific religion, which is unconstitutional under the principle of separation of church and state.
bullet Student-led, student written public prayers are not permitted to be part of a game format. i.e. the school officials cannot insert a prayer into the schedule of a game, even if the actual prayer is led by a student. More details on this topic.
bulletPromoting any one denomination or religion at the expense of another faith group or secular philosophy. For example, a comparative religion class must give a balanced description of religious and secular beliefs from a variety of faith groups and ethical systems.
bulletBanning the wearing of religious clothing and symbols.
This seems to be a growing problem throughout the U.S. In general, children do not abandon their religious rights when entering public school campuses. Religious clothing and symbols, if not disruptive, are generally regarded as a protected form of speech.  More details on this topic.

Prayers before Board of Education meetings:

This has proven to be a controversial topic in recent decades:

  • In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice of state legislatures starting meetings with a prayer. The case was Marsh v. Chambers. The high court noted that the practice has been:

    "... deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. ... [and has] "coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom from colonial times." 2

  • During 1992-JAN, the new board president of Cleveland Board of Education in Cleveland OH, Lawrence Lumpkin, announced that future school board meetings would begin with a prayer. He later stated that he made this decision because of the "strife and acrimony" that was present at previous meetings. He had hoped that a prayer, would create a "more businesslike and professional decorum at the meetings. ... Through solemnization of the proceedings, both members of the school board and attendees have taken on a greater respect for the process and certainly attach importance to its School Board's activities." Generally, Christian clergy were invited to give the prayer; occasionally non-Christian clergy were invited or the Board President would conduct a few moments of silent prayer.

    Sarah Coles, a student, was invited to a board meeting to receive an award. She was "shocked and surprised" to hear a prayer at the start of the meeting. On other occasions, Gene Tracy, a math teacher, attended a meeting. He felt:

    "... humiliated demeaned and physically coerced into attending and participating in these prayers."

    Coles and Tracy filed a lawsuit: Coles Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education in federal court. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided on 1999-MAR-18 that the Board of Education must not pray before their meetings. The court ruled that prayers are an illegal endorsement of religion. 3,4

  • On the other hand, in the Bacus v. Palo Verde Unified School District Board of Education (1998), a California federal court treated board meetings as equivalent to a legislature session since it was also a ""meeting of adults with official business and policy making functions." Since there is a long history of legislative bodies starting meetings with prayers, the court decided that such prayers were constitutional. 12

  • The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education (1999) concluded that such prayers were unconstitutional because board meetings often were attended by students. The Cleveland Board even had a student representative as a member. For that reason it decided that prayers at board meetings should be interpreted using the same criteria as are used for prayers during classroom time, and where therefore unconstitutional. 12

  • In the case Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the actions of the town board of Greece, NY. They had invited local clergy to deliver an invocation at the start of each meeting. The high court determined that the principal audience for the invocations were the lawmakers, not the public. Also, members of the public were free to leave the room during the invocation. Justice Kagan dissented, noting that the public participated in the meetings, that the clergy faced the citizens when giving the invocation, and the clergy invited the public to join in prayer. Also the public often included children.

Some school boards have substituted an invocation with a moment of silence during which those present may enter into silent personal prayer, meditation, reflection, etc. Others have continued the practice of invocations, but have taken care to involved clergy from as many different denominations and religions as possible in order to minimize their risk of a lawsuit.

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"Clergy in the Schools" project: A panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on 1999-APR-16 that a Texas "Clergy in the Schools" program is unconstitutional. The Beaumont Independent School District introduced this program in 1996. Local clergy led group counseling discussions in the school about morality and civic virtues. The students involved in the counseling were selected by school officials without prior notice to, or consent form, the parents. Prayer and discussion of religion, sex or abortion were not permitted. The clergy were not allowed to identify their church affiliation. Secular counselors were not permitted. The majority opinion of the panel of judges was that the program:

"... makes a clear statement that it favors religion over non religion."

The judges were also concerned that the clergy were disproportionately Protestants.

They found that the involvement of school officials in this project created an "excessive entanglement" between church and state.  

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This topic continues in the next essay.

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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. "Facts and Case Summary - Engel v. Vitale," United States Courts, undated, at:
  2. "The latest on prayer at school board meetings," Texas Association of School Boards, 2015, at:
  3. Religion Today news summary, 1999-MAR-19.
  4. Coles Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, FindLaw, 2016, 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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