The court cases challenging prayer in schools have been ongoing since the 1950s and '60s when the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled in favor of maintaining separation between church and state.
Here are six court cases that have been significant in determining the interpretation of the First Amendment and prayer in schools:
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1. 1948, McCollum v. Board of Education District 71
This case concerned the Champaign (Illinois) Council on Religious Education, an organization made of people from several faiths, including Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. This group was offering religious instruction to public school students in the classrooms of a school. The Supreme Court found that “use of tax-supported property for religious instruction and the close cooperation between the school authorities and the religious council violated the Establishment clause. Because pupils were required to attend school and were released in part from this legal duty if they attended the religious classes, the Court found that the Champaign system was ‘beyond question a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups and to spread the faith.’”
2. 1962, Engel v. Vitale
This case is often cited as the one that “officially” banned prayer from schools. In this case, a New York school district’s decision to have students say a prayer aloud at the start of each school day was challenged by the parents of 10 students in the district. The Supreme Court found that the school district was violating the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment that prohibits Congress from establishing a religion. The case specifically addressed whether a school district could create an officially approved prayer.
3. 1963, Abington School District v. Schempp
Ellery Schempp was a 16-year-old at a Pennsylvania high school, and he refused to participate in mandatory Bible readings that occurred at the beginning of school each day. His family, along with the family of student Bill Murray, sued, and the court found that "state-sponsored devotional Bible readings in public schools constitute an impermissible religious exercise by government."
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4. 1985, Wallace v. Jaffree
This case addressed whether schools can set aside a time for meditation or personal reflection. In Alabama, schools had “a period of silence for meditation.” It did not endorse a specific religion or even specify that the silent time should be used for religious reasons, but instead set it as a time of reflection. But later, state legislators changed the statute to read a “period of silence for meditation or silent prayer.”
With that addition, the Supreme Court ruled that the amendment to the law violated the Establishment Clause.
5. 1992, Lee v. Weisman
This case challenged a middle school practice of inviting a clergyman to offer an opening invocation and a closing benediction at a graduation ceremony. With a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court said such practices violate the First Amendment.
6. 1995, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe
This case was instituted by parents of two students, one Roman Catholic and one Mormon, who objected to a school district policy that elected a classmate to say a prayer at the stadium before football games. The Supreme Court ruled that athletic events are school-sponsored, and therefore fall under the First Amendment Establishment Clause. “The court made clear that there is not one Constitution for football players and one for all other public-school students,” the Religious Action Center said
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