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School Prayer


SCHOOL PRAYER. Although the First Amendment prohibited the establishment of religion, state-mandated religious practices such as prayer and Bible reading became established in public schools across the United States. Not until the 1960s did the issue of government support of religion become the impetus for challenges brought before the Supreme Court as violations of the First Amendment, although such opposition dates back to the late nineteenth century. An early opponent was Rabbi Isaac Wise, who opposed religious teaching and Bible reading in public schools on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.

The issue was first brought before the Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), in which the Court decided that government may not sponsor prayer in public schools because it is a violation of the First Amendment clause stating that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Further, in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), the Court ruled that the government may not sponsor Bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public school. Throughout the 1960s the debate continued. Then, in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), the Court established the so-called "Lemon test," which set forth three conditions that had to be met for a challenged govern-mental action to be constitutional. First, the government, whether federal or state, may not sponsor or aid in the establishment of a state religion; second, the action must be secular in purpose and in its impact; and lastly, the action could not excessively entangle government with religion. This, in effect, made it difficult to introduce prayer into schools.

In the early 1980s a concerted effort was made to reintroduce voluntary prayer into public schools. Under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, Howard Phillips, Ed McAteer, and Paul Weyrich, and with the support of the Reagan administration, conservative religious groups such as the Moral Majority sought to overturn the legal limits set forth in Engel and Abington Township. Attempts were made to reintroduce prayer in school through legislation and by amending the Constitution. Legislation was proposed that would have limited the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, and a constitutional prayer amendment was introduced. Each measure was defeated, and in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985), the Court ruled that a state law authorizing a moment of silence in public schools was unconstitutional. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the religious right made sporadic efforts to reintroduce school prayer legislation but were unsuccessful.


Alley, Robert S. School Prayer: The Court, the Congress, and the First Amendment. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1994.

Haynes, Charles C. "Religion in the Public Schools." School Administrator 56, no. 1 (January 1999): 6–10.

McCarthy, Tom H. "Prayer and Bible Reading in the Public Schools: Perspectives, Assumptions, and Implications." Educational Foundations 14, no. 1 (winter 2000): 65–87.

Keith A.Leitich

See alsoChurch and State, Separation of ; Education ; Moral Majority .

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