Click here to learn more about the status of the laws relating to school prayer, and the guidelines under which our school system operates.
Supreme Court Rulings on School Prayer
The U.S. Supreme Court first ruled against school-sponsored prayer in 1962 in Engel v. Vitale. Since then, the Justices have consistently ruled against school-sponsored worship, while permitting voluntary student-initiated religious activities.
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe began in 1995 when the parents of two students - one Roman Catholic and one Mormon - sued their Texas school district in federal court following adoption of a policy allowing students to elect a classmate to deliver a prayer over the stadium's public address system prior to football games. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court , which upheld the common-sense notion that public school athletic events are school-sponsored activities. The Court made clear that there is not one Constitution for football players and one for all other public-school students. We welcomed the Court's holding that school-sponsored worship, even in the guise of a student-initiated event, is an infringement upon the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and a threat to true religious freedom.
This case does not conclude - and we are not arguing - that students do not have the right to pray in public schools. Private, voluntary prayer is not only permitted in public schools, but it is constitutionally protected. What is impermissible is school officials organizing or conducting prayer or permitting such activities at school-sponsored events. Prayers for the safety or the success of high school football players may be spoken within the heart of each student and family member. Just as students may pray privately before class or during lunch, a quarterback can pray that his pass will be completed, a field goal kicker that his aim is true, or a group of students can step aside to say a prayer if it does not interfere with the activity. The Supreme Court has wisely maintained that this type of prayer is not the same as officially supported and conducted prayers read over a loudspeaker on behalf of all those present. Such individual, voluntary prayer is different not in degree but in kind from officially selected and sanctioned public prayer.
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and Department of Education Guidelines on School Prayer
In October 30, 2001 the House and Senate passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the major educational legislation that allocated federal funding for public education. However, in doing so they effectively opened the floodgates for unconstitutional prayer in public schools by stating that federal funds will be denied to any local school district that prevents or otherwise denies students participation in "constitutionally protected school prayer." Current law quite sufficiently provides adequate constitutional and statutory protections against violations of the right to voluntary prayer. However, the passage of this law directed the Education Department to issue new guidelines on the issue of school prayer, subject to approval only by the Department of Justice. Guidelines were released by the Education Department on February 7, 2003 and can be found here.
Although the Reform Movement believes that these guidelines are in line with previous court rulings, we still have reservations as to how they were formulated since they attempt to single-handedly resolve longstanding constitutional debates without conferring with other members of the community. Furthermore, the passage of ESEA marked the first time Congress has approved taking federal funds from school districts that do not follow Education Department guidelines. The threat of having their funding revoked for refusing or failing to comply with such guidelines has the potential of greatly intimidating local education agencies and causing them to err on the side of allowing unconstitutional types of prayer in schools, such as coercive school-supervised or teacher-led prayer in public classrooms.