The First Amendment to the Constitution protects an individual’s right to engage in voluntary and non-disruptive prayer, even if that prayer takes place in a public school or on government property. An individual does not, however, have the right to use the mechanisms of the government to coerce others into participating in that prayer. Furthermore, AU opposes prayer that is government-sponsored because the government should never endorse religion or force individuals of minority faiths or of no faith to feel coerced into participating in religious activities. Government-sponsored prayer is divisive and sends a message to those of minority faiths that they are not full members of the community. Unfortunately, state and federal legislators continue to look for ways to impose government and school-sponsored prayer.
Although AU believes that government-led prayer is never a good idea, the Supreme Court upheld opening prayers at legislative bodies in the 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers, and again in 2013 in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway. In both cases, the prayers were upheld narrowly, based on the specific facts of the case.
Even though the Supreme Court ruled that local governments may open their meetings with ceremonial prayers, the First Amendment imposes limitations on legislative prayer practices. Such limitations include: individuals wishing to speak before a governing body must be granted equal access without regard to religion; the governing body cannot force citizens to participate in the prayer; the prayer cannot disparage or promote any particular religion; and the prayer must take place separately from the governing body’s policymaking activity. AU has organized a campaign to reach out to governing bodies to explain the constitutional parameters set out by the Supreme Court. And, AU continues to urge state and local legislative bodies to open without a prayer, so that they may be inclusive of all the citizens in their communities.
Prayer in Public Schools
Legislation that claims to clarify students’ ability to engage in prayer on public school campuses is unnecessary, and often, unconstitutional. Students already have the right to engage in voluntary, student-initiated prayer that is not coercive and does not disrupt the school’s educational mission and activities. For example, students have the right to bow their heads at the lunch table and engage in a moment of silence or to gather as a group at a “See You at the Pole” prayer day.
Many states, however, have tried to create laws mandating prayer practices that would violate the Constitution. Schools may not set aside time in the school day specifically for prayer. Likewise, states may not enact legislation that would allow school faculty or staff to participate in these prayers. They also may not create laws that would promote prayer at school events, such as prayers at student graduation ceremonies or student-led prayers over the school’s loudspeaker. Such prayer practices blur the line between student speech and government speech, and create the impression for students – a captive audience – that the school endorses particular religious beliefs.