School Prayers (Update)

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Since the Supreme Court's decision in engel v. vitale (1962), the law has forbidden school officials from sponsoring worship exercises in public schools. Courts have given several reasons for this principle. First, pressure on students to conform to what is expected will lead some to engage in prayers in conflict with their own beliefs. Second, such exercises may be very divisive within a community; different religious groups may disagree concerning what prayers are appropriate, and they may engage in bitter disputes on the subject. At least one purpose of the establishment clause was to minimize public conflict over matters of worship in public life. The Supreme Court applied the principle of Engel in wallace v. jaffree (1985) to an Alabama law requiring a moment of silence for meditation or prayer in public schools.

In recent years, the Engel principle has remained in active controversy. In 1998, the U.S. house of representatives defeated a proposed constitutional amendment which, if enacted, would have legalized state-sponsored worship in public facilities, including schools. Earlier in lee v. weisman (1992), the Court further extended the principle of Engel to prayers recited at a public middle school graduation ceremony by a member of the clergy invited to participate by school officials. The 5–4 majority Justices rested their judgment on a variety of grounds. The majority opinion, authored by Justice anthony m. kennedy, asserted that attendance at graduation was, though not required by law, nevertheless obligatory as a matter of custom and community expectation. Moreover, he reasoned that peer pressure might well lead some students to acquiesce silently in graduation prayer, despite their disagreement with the content of the prayer. Thus, he concluded that graduation prayer was coercive and forbidden by the Constitution. Others in the Court majority agreed with that assessment, and went further to conclude that commencement prayer involved government endorsement and sponsorship of religion, both of which are independently forbidden by the establishment clause. The dissenters in Lee, led by Justice antonin scalia, argued that commencement prayer was justified by a long-standing American tradition of using nondenominational prayer to mark public ceremonies. Although that historical assertion was correct, it was not responsive to the Lee majority's concern that public school commencement prayer involved both government sponsorship of religious exercise and coercive pressure on young people and their families.

After Lee, three kinds of questions have arisen. First, lower courts have held that state university commencements may include nondenominational, ceremonial benedictions. Because university graduates are adults, the coercive pressures on them are thought to be sufficiently less to justify the different outcome. This result rests on questionable reasoning; if government sponsorship of religious exercise is an independent vice, the age of the students should make no difference.

Second, some school districts responded to Lee by arranging commencements in ways that permitted the graduating seniors to choose student speakers and direct them to lead others in prayer at the ceremony. Although a few courts have upheld this practice, others have ruled that the school officials remain responsible for the content of commencement exercises; accordingly, school-sponsored, student-led prayer at commencement has been treated by most courts as equally unconstitutional as prayer led by officials or invited clergy.

Third, many school officials, teachers, and students have erroneously come to believe that purely private prayer by students on school property is illegal. This is simply mistaken; so long as private prayers uttered by students—for example, saying Grace over lunch in the cafeteria—are neither sponsored by the school nor expressed in a way that harasses fellow students, such religious speech on school property is entirely within the students' rights of freedom of speech and religious liberty.

Ira C. Lupu

(see also: Establishment of Religion; Religion and Free Speech; Religion in Public Schools.)


Paulsen, Michael S. 1993 Lemon is Dead. Case Western Reserve Law Review 43:795–863.

Sherry, Suzanna 1992 Lee v. Weisman: Paradox Redux. Supreme Court Review 1992:123–153.

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School Prayers (Update)

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School Prayers (Update)