Religion and prayer in U.S. public schools
Part 3 of four parts
What the U.S.
Enforcing religious rights.
Factors to consider: prayers in school.
Again, this is in a state of flux. The following activities appear to be
permitted as of 2016. In fact, they are more than allowed. They are constitutionally protected as
freedom of speech, religion and assembly rights:
||Graduation ceremonies: Some invocations, benedictions and prayers at graduation ceremonies.
This is very much a gray area as far as court rulings is concerned. More
||Teaching religion: The positive and negative effects of religion on society
may be studied in history, literature, comparative religion, and other courses. Comparative religion
classes are allowed, as long as one religion is not presented as being superior to any
another, or as absolute truth. Bible study is allowed, as long as the texts from other religions and secular texts are also
studied. Schools can communicate the broad field of religion but not indoctrinate their
students in a particular faith.
||Student religious clubs: If the school receives federal funds, then it must obey the federal Equal Access
Act of 1984.
Students are free to organize Bible study and other religious special interest clubs if any other secular clubs are allowed. The school may prohibit religious clubs, but only if it
prohibits all student groups. Religious clubs must be given the same
access to school facilities (space to meet, permission to advertise on school bulletin
boards, permission to have announcements read over the PA system, inclusion in the year
book, etc.) as do other clubs. Group meetings must be "voluntary and student
initiated." There must be no "sponsorship" of the meetings by
the school. "Non-school persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly
attend" the activities. One effect of this law is the flourishing
of Christian clubs in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union estimated that, at the turn of the century, 10,000 Christian clubs were operating in U.S. high schools. 1 More information
||Moment of silence: Having students engage in a moment of silence during which they
can pray, meditate, plan their day, or engage in any other silent mental activity.
In late 2000, a federal court affirmed the constitutionality of the moment
of silence law which came into effect in Virginia on 2000-APR-1. The Natural Law Project promotes this alternative. 2
||Prayer outside of school building: Students can organize prayers on school property outside the classroom. e.g. they can
conduct group prayer meetings at the school
School religious speech: Students can carry Bible or other religious texts to and in school. They can pray before
eating. A student can pray on the school bus, in the cafeteria, in
classrooms before and after class, in the corridors, in the washrooms, etc.
They can wear T-shirts with religious text. They can wear religious
jewelry (buttons, symbols). They can hand out religious materials.
They can freely talk about religion to fellow students, outside of
class. They can pray before eating in the cafeteria. These are well-known freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Yet not
everyone is aware of these forms of protected speech. Bill Keane's cartoon
"Family Circus" for 1999-NOV-15 shows a mother waving at
two children leaving the house. She says "Get to school safely."
The caption reads:
"Chances are they will as long as they're allowed
to pray on that old school bus."
||Rental of school facilities: Many religious organizations rent the use of school facilities after
hours. Past court decisions generally supported this right, if rooms are also rented
to secular groups. Court rulings specified that schools can refuse to rent to religious groups, but then they cannot
rent to outside secular organizations as well. However, more recent
court decisions have split on this issue.
||Teaching of evolution: Schools may require their teachers to explain evolution as a
scientific theory, as supported by 95% of scientists. This would
include teachers who might not believe evolution to be true because of
their personal religious beliefs.
||Teacher display of religion: Teachers may be prohibited from displaying a Bible on their desk or from placing
religious posters on the classroom wall. This might be interpreted as implying state support for a specific
In summary, the law guarantees students' fundamental religious freedoms while requiring
the school to maintain a religiously neutral environment. Sometimes the latter requires
some limitations on teachers' freedoms. A 1996-JUN court decision by
the US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi covers many of the
above items, including prayer over a school-wide intercom, a pre-school religious group,
classroom prayer, teaching a Bible class and religious instruction in a history class. The
text of the court order is
also available on the Internet.
Even though many religious behaviors are protected by the Constitution, they are not
necessarily allowed by the teacher, school principal or school board. Sometimes, they have
to be fought for.
A small percentage of public school teachers and principals have interpreted the
constitution incorrectly. Some examples:
||forbidden a student from reading a Bible in the school bus.
||forbidden a student from praying before a meal in the cafeteria.
||refused to accept a student history essay on the life of an historical figure because
the essay described Jesus.
||refused to allow a Bible study group to be organized by students, while permitting
political, philosophical, science and other special interest groups.
Such infringements on a student's religious freedom are clearly unconstitutional, and
based on ignorance of the law by the teacher, principal and/or school board. The US
Supreme Court has ruled that students' rights do not stop at the school door. Such
disputes are usually resolved when the school is informed of student's rights.
Christian litigation groups are actively involved in such resolutions. An example is the Rutherford
Institute. 3 They have stated:
"Many cases can be solved with a strong and
professional letter from an attorney, a legal memorandum from our office, or a phone call
from a staff member."
Although it is a conservative Christian group, they
occasionally take on cases which support the rights of non-Christians.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a national group with state offices whose main role is protecting the freedom of individuals. The cases that they file in courts often deal with individuals' religious freedom from religion, and individuals' freedom of religious expression.
This topic generates a great deal more heat than light. A number of points are might be
considered concerning prayer and other religious activities in public classrooms:
||Contrary to generally held belief, prayer is not forbidden in public schools. A
student can come early to class, sit quietly, and pray silently. Similarly, with some
discipline, a student can pray upon rising, as a family before leaving home, even (if they
can concentrate over the noise) in a school bus, in the cafeteria, etc.
||If students are allowed to organize any type of extra-curricular group, such as a
science club or political club, then they are free to organize religious or prayer groups.
The federal "equal access" law requires this of all school districts that
receive federal funding. They may hold their meetings on school property, advertise their
group, etc. to the same extent as non-religious student groups.
||Students do not leave their constitutional rights at the door of the school: they can
wear clothing that promotes a specific religion or denomination; they can discuss the
religious aspects of a topic in class, etc.
||There is a sizable minority of parents (and by implication, children) who
other than Christian religions or who follow no religion at all. They find a
state-sponsored Christian prayer to be deeply offensive, and an attack on their freedom of
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- ACLU Newsfeed, 1999-NOV-5.
- Natural Prayer Project is available at:
- Rutherford Institute's home page is at: http://www.rutherford.org/
Copyright 1995 to 2016 by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2016-JUL-25
Author: B.A. Robinson