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.


  1. Sure, a student or a parent can ask to pray and may offer a prayer. But then so can the Wiccan, the Satan worshipper and the environmentalist worshipper of Mother Gaia. If a school permits a public form of prayer, the policy must be denomination neutral. And therein lies the rub.

  2. You're right. It is important to remember that. But for me that's not a problem. It would be great to have alternate forms of religion presented to our children. I think we are (or should be) comfortable enough with our religion that we wouldn't feel threatened by, but rather instructed by, another's display of his or her religion. It would be good for children to know that some families are Wiccan, that some are Muslim, and that some worship mother earth.

  3. Reach Upward,

    I agree with Frank. I know that when I was growing up in public school in a small town in Utah. I automatically assumed that everybody was LDS. It wasn't till I was probably in 4th or 5th grade that I understood that people believe in other religions. I think it would have helped me personally to have other people expressing their religious believes. I dont see anything wrong with it.

  4. I agree with this to a point. I value the experiences I have had with others' religious expressions. However, almost all of these have been focused on something good. I have problems when it comes to worshipping and glorying in something that is acknowledged to be overtly evil -- especially when we are talking about doing it in front of children.

  5. Good point. I have only heard bits and pieces of what Wicca teaches, but if it (or some other religion) does animal sacrifice or sexual or other violent things, then that would be a problem.

    I like Danny's point, too. I feel like I am still feel a bit disadvantaged in my adult life because I didn't really know which of my friends was LDS or not in some cases. It has created in me an ethnocentrism that I have to consciously try to overcome.

  6. ok, lets get one thing straight.
    I am a high school student.
    I am also a wiccan

    see, i think its funny becuase unlike Christianity, we can't just go to church after we do something bad or "sinful" and be forgiven for it.

    we have to live our lives with the 3fold rule.

    we do not believe in the how is it that we worship him? I HATE more than anything when people critisize on us, when we stay out of others ways. Isn't one of your quotes form the bible "love thy neighbor"?! Well, guess what fellas, that includes ME and all of us wiccans.

    we are a peaceful earth-religion. so, get your facts straight before you start accusing us and aclling us names.

    andd, yes. I think that as long as it isn't destracting to other students trying to learn, yes, using religion in all ways possible is something that we should be able to do.

    please help me to understand this, because im having trouble. Why is it, that christians say we are so bad and evil?! Find me a REAL story about a wiccan doing something terrible, and I will conversate with you.

  7. Anonymous,

    Thank you for clarifying what your religion believes. I can respect that.

    There is probably a lot of falsehood going around about what Wiccans believe. There is a lot of falsehood going around about what Mormons and others believe as well.

    We should all be more tolerant.

    Thanks again.

  8. I agree with frank, weneed to tolerate others for their religion. There are a lot of misconceptions about every religion. I'm a Jehovah's Witness! I was baptized almost 1 year ago. When ever someone finds out they say to me "Try not to get brain washed" or "Thats a hard religion to live by". Let me tell you it really itn't. We just follow what the bible says as standards for our life. And i think it is very simple and don't say oh she has been it all her life because i have been in this world. My mom is an alcoholic and a drug addict. I remember all of the horrible things that happened in my early life. I took care of my bother and sister at the age of 3.

  9. I've attended a couple of meetings of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and I was very impressed. I have some great Baptist friends, and a close friend who is an atheist.

    I think every church gets way too wrapped up in the idea that "we're the only true church and if you don't join us--when you die you're going to hell". God is much more compassionate than that.


Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting. If you have a Google/Blogger account, to be apprised of ongoing comment activity on this article, please click the "Subscribe" link below.

Popular posts from this blog