School Prayer

For almost one hundred and fifty years, courts permitted schools to require student prayer. Finally, in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court held that requiring prayer or Bible study in public schools, even if generalized and nondenominational, violated the Establishment clause of the First Amendment (Abington School District v. Schempp). Since then, various school systems have attempted to comply with this holding, but still allow some freedom. In the latter part of the 20th century and the early 2000s, the high court has increasingly been petitioned to refine and clarify the parameters of separation of church and state as it relates to prayer. While early cases prohibited praying out loud, later decisions also forbade compelled moments of silence or meditation. In Wallace v. Jaffe (1985), the Court banned a compelled “daily moment of silence” during which students were “encouraged” to use the time for silent prayer. In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court struck down invocations at public school graduation ceremonies, on the grounds that they had the effect of advancing religion and promoting excessive entanglement between church and state.

In the 1990s, the Supreme Court issued some decisions that seemed to suggest the need or desire to carve some exceptions out of the stricter separation of church and state decisions. In Westside Community Board Of Educ. v. Mergens (1990), the Court held that if a school provided its facilities to some groups during off-hours, it must also make those facilities available to religious groups as well. In another case, the Court held that allowing a public employee to serve as a sign-language interpreter for a deaf child attending a religious school was permissible, even though the public employee would be spending at least part of his time interpreting religious beliefs and translating religious teachings.

Inside School Prayer