School Prayer: What Did the Supreme Court Say?
There is a lot of controversy surrounding religion in the public schools, particularly when it comes to prayer. Many have just stopped allowing prayer in school at all. But Supreme Court decisions, while limiting prayer and religious expression in public schools, have NOT prohibited prayer in public schools.
I was walking through the halls of one of the local elementary schools this morning after my son's Junior Jazz basketball game, and I noticed a quote on the wall which I appreciated. I talked about how important it is to work hard and have a good attitude, and then it concluded:
It doesn't hurt to pray a little, too.
I was pleased that someone in a public school setting would feel comfortable posting that comment, but I wondered whether some people would find it offensive and against the law.
But what is the law? Interestingly, Americans for Separation of Church and State says:
Has prayer been expelled from our schools, as some people claim? Has Bible reading been banned? Must teachers avoid all mention of religion? The answer to these questions is "no." Public schools are not permitted to sponsor worship, but that does not mean that they must be "religion-free zones."
The Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale in 1962 prohibited public school officials from writing prayers that students were to give, but it did not prohibit individuals from exercising their freedom of religion, even in public schools.
The next, year in Abington Township School District v. Schempp,the Supreme Court prohibited schools from sponsoring Bible study, but it did not prevent students from reading the Bible in school, although some schools have forbidden students from doing so.
'Americans United' also makes it clear that:
The high court has also made it clear, time and again, that objective study about religion in public schools is legal and appropriate. Many public schools offer courses in comparative religion, the Bible as literature or the role of religion in world and U.S. history. As long as the approach is objective, balanced and non-devotional, these classes present no constitutional problem.
The US Supreme Court decided in Santa Fe Independent School District v.Jane Doe, not that it was unconstitutional for students to pray at public events, but that the way it occurred (by majority vote) in the particular case effectively allowed the school district to determine which prayers would and would not be allowed.
So does that mean that a student could ask to say a prayer before a school function, and be allowed to? Yes. Does it mean that a student can include scriptural quotes in a research paper? Yes. Does it mean that parents or their child could ask permission and be allowed to pray at the beginning of a school day? Yes.
Does that mean that a teacher can place on the wall in the school hallway a motivational quote that includes encouragement to pray? Absolutely.