Prayer in School

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Prayer in School

At the time of America's founding as a nation, whatever schooling was available was largely in the hands of Protestant clergy. Not only were they among the better-educated, but also their role as teachers of the young reflected a widespread belief that a moral citizenry required spiritual training. It is safe to assume, then, that in addition to reading the Bible, students also participated in prayer. By 1962, in Engel v. Vitale (370 U.S. 421), the U.S. Supreme Court, in a near unanimous vote, declared that teacher-led prayer in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment and was thus outlawed. Obviously much changed in the course of two hundred years.

What happened to prayer in public schools happened to many practices in American life as the United States realized its increasing diversity (including its religious diversity). Also at work was an expanding public bureaucracy that placed government in an administrative position that often unwittingly meant preferred treatment for one religion over another. Indeed, that situation is exactly what the Ohio Supreme Court realized in 1872 in its decision in Board of Education v. Minor (13 Am. R. 233). The circumstances were these: In Cincinnati, Catholics had gained such political strength that they were able to threaten to vote against public school bonds if the Protestant Bible readings (King James version) in the tax-supported schools were not stopped. The Cincinnati Board of Education called a halt to the longstanding practice, which led to a lawsuit to reverse the board's decision, which then went to the Ohio Supreme Court. In upholding the board's decision, the court noted that a civil government can have no religious opinion. It must, in other words, be religiously neutral. Between this Ohio action in 1872 and the 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision, a number of states outlawed mandatory prayer and Bible-reading (e.g., Wisconsin in 1890, Nebraska in 1902, Illinois in 1910).

The enormity of this change toward government neutrality in religious matters is underscored by noting earlier abuses when government was not neutral. In 1854 the Maine Supreme Court upheld the expulsion of a Roman Catholic student for her refusal to participate in Protestant exercises. Something similar occurred in the Boston public schools, where Catholic students were beaten for not observing Protestant exercises. Just how "normative" many Americans, including judges, assumed Protestantism to be is also exemplified in a 1922 Georgia Supreme Court decision. Noting that the state-mandated Bible-reading in their public schools always employed the King James Version, some Catholic parents in Rome, Georgia, challenged the practice on the grounds that, by excluding the Catholic Douay Bible, the schools were violating the Georgia Constitution that denied tax money to "any sectarian institution." The Georgia court disagreed and offered three reasons why the exclusive use of the Protestant Bible was not "sectarian":

  1. Differences between the two versions of the Bible are "not known to the ordinary lay reader."
  2. Although tax-supported teachers lead the exercises, they teach the "creed of no sect."
  3. The "real object" of the First Amendment's establishment clause is "to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects," and the King James Bible, while different from the Douay, is not anti–Roman Catholic.

Probably such blatant violations of the American religious libertarian spirits are now rare. The implications of religious pluralism filter down no doubt to all but the most isolated, homogeneous communities. First Catholics, then Jews, and now Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims have moved into the American population in large numbers, along with Orthodox, Sikhs, Confucianists, Santerıans, and many others. Surveys show that three-quarters of American adults believe that people should be able to choose freely their own religion, so it is not surprising that pressures have declined to have public schools be surrogate religious educators. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court in the past five decades has ruled on many of the religious practices that were once commonplace in America's public schools, declaring many of them to be unconstitutional:

  • In 1943, the practice whereby religious teachers came into public school classrooms and taught their particular religion to students whose parents gave permission was outlawed.
  • In 1952, the Court approved the practice whereby students took similar instruction but only if it occurred off the school campus.
  • We saw already that in 1962 the Court declared illegal teacher-led prayers in public schools; in 1963 so was the devotional reading of the Bible there made illegal.
  • In 1980 a state-mandated practice of posting the Ten Commandments on the wall of every public classroom was declared unconstitutional.
  • Five years later, a law calling for a minute of silence at the beginning of each school day was likewise outlawed.
  • In 1992 the custom in which one or more clergy are asked to participate in public school graduation exercises was declared illegal.

Read one way, this series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions suggests that the Court is antireligious, and many Americans, believing that to be the case, object strenuously. But a more judicious reading suggests something else. What the Court is outlawing is not prayer, for example, but the state's sponsorship or endorsement of prayer, thereby losing its neutrality toward religion. Students, in other words, may pray in public schools if they choose to, subject only to restrictions of time, place, and manner. What is not permitted is for the teacher, school board, or state to lead such prayers or to dictate what prayers should be said. This constitutional demand for religious neutrality is illustrated in the 1990 case in which the Court ruled that if a public school makes its facilities available for after-school, voluntary club activities such as chess, stamp collecting, or swimming, it can not exclude a Bible study and prayer group. Again, the U.S. Supreme Court is not hostile to religion in public schools but merely insistent on what the Ohio Supreme Court found in 1872—that the state can have, sponsor, or endorse no religious opinions.

Violations occur, of course, especially in the southern states of the United States, where evangelical Protestantism has long dominated the culture (Dolbeare and Hammond, 1971). It is one thing for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare a practice to be unconstitutional and quite another for that declaration to be enforced. Enforcement requires the cooperation of such enforcers as teachers, principals, superintendents, school board members, and ultimately the attorneys general, governors, and legislatures. It also requires one or more aggrieved citizens who have the resources to challenge an unconstitutional practice in what can be a costly and protracted process. Obviously there are many communities where such enforcement is not desired and/or where such resources are unavailable. Prayer in public school continues in some places, in other words, even though it is illegal.

Why would this be the case? The answer is pretty clear: The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." While courts have outlawed school-sponsored prayer on the grounds that it violates the "establishment" clause of the First Amendment, many Americans perceive the court's actions as violations of the "free exercise" clause; government is improperly preventing them from exercising their religious freedom. Especially in small, rural communities, nearly everyone may identify as some kind of Protestant, with the result that nobody is offended by the continued use of prayer in their schools.

America is growing less rural, however, and its population not only gets larger but also vastly more diverse. Over time, therefore, even in those places where public school prayer is desired by many, the wisdom of governmental neutrality in matters of religion will be recognized.

See alsoChurch and State; Civil Religion; Freedom of Religion; Prayer.


Dolbeare, Kenneth, and Phillip E. Hammond. TheSchool Prayer Decisions: From Court Policy to Local Practice. 1971.

Hammond, Phillip E. With Liberty for All. 1998.

Michaelsen, Robert. Piety in the Public School. 1970.

Nord, Warren A. Religious and American Education: Rethinking the National Dilemma. 1995.

Phillip E. Hammond