March 2020 Church & State | Featured

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued several landmark rulings on the issue of school-sponsored prayer in public schools. If there’s a common thread running through these decisions, it’s this: The high court has taken care to ensure the right of students to take part in non-disruptive, voluntary prayer is protected while striking down religious exercises that are sponsored by school officials or are coercive in nature.

Here’s a look at the court’s rulings in this important area:

Engel v. Vitale (1962): The Supreme Court held that daily classroom prayers mandated by New York law were unconstitutional because the separation of religion and government means that public officials cannot compose an official prayer and use the public school system to encourage its recitation.

As the court explained, “[W]hen the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the officially approved religion is plain.”

Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963): This case challenged a Pennsylvania law that required public schools to begin the day by reading verses from the Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Even though student participation was voluntary and students who asked were excused, the Supreme Court struck down the law because its very purpose was to endorse religion.

“The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind,” the court observed. “We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.”

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985): The Supreme Court struck down an Alabama law that mandated that public schools have a daily one-minute period of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer.” The court examined the legislative history of the law and determined that its entire purpose was to promote religion. The bill’s sponsor said that it was an effort to “return voluntary prayer” to the public schools.  

 Lee v. Weisman, (1992): A prayer delivered by a rabbi at a public school graduation ceremony violated church-state separation, declared the Supreme Court. Although the ceremony was nominally voluntary, the court held that a school cannot require students to give up an important life event in order to avoid an unwanted, school-sponsored, religious practice.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy observed, “The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State.” 

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000): A public school’s policy of allowing student-led prayers at football games was invalidated by the Supreme Court in this case. Even though the speaker was selected by a student vote, the prayers resulted in the school endorsing religion: They were authorized by school policy and took place on school property at a school-sponsored event.

As explained by the court, “school sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are non-adherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’”