March 2019 Church & State Magazine - March 2019

By Order Of The Court: The Supreme Court On School Prayer

  Rob Boston

The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down several important cases dealing with prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Here is a summary of some of the leading decisions:

Engel v. Vitale, 1962: Ruling 6-1, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a New York law that allowed local schools to sponsor recitation of the “Regent’s Prayer,” a supposedly “non-denominational” prayer written by a bureaucratic body.

School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 1963: In this 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court struck down a law in Pennsylvania that mandated that every public school begin the day with recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and 10 verses from the “Holy Bible.” At the same time, the high court invalidated a similar law in Maryland in a companion case, Murray v. Curlett.

Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985: In this case from Alabama, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 to strike down a state law that ostensibly allocated one minute each day for “silent prayer” in public schools. The majority held that the law lacked a valid secular purpose and was intended to endorse prayer.

Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 1990: In an 8-1 decision, the high court upheld a federal law called the Equal Access Act. The law allows students in public secondary schools to form religious and other types of clubs that meet during non-instructional time. The clubs are voluntary, and students may join or not as they see fit.

Lee v. Weisman, 1992: In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that a Rhode Island public school district’s policy of inviting clergy to give official prayers during high school graduation ceremonies was a violation of church-state separation.

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 2000: This case from Texas challenged a public school district’s policy of allowing students to vote on having a so-called “student-initiated and student-led” prayer recited over a loudspeaker before football games. The high court struck down the policy on a 6-3 vote.        

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