The issue of how and when it is appropriate for prayer to take place in public schools is fought out in the courts on a regular basis.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently found that state-sponsored prayer is not allowed in public schools, cases challenging different situations occur frequently.
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While the right of students to pray on a voluntary basis in school and the right of students not to be forced to pray in a state-sponsored situation are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, several states have taken actions to clarify the issue.
• Many states have enacted “moment of silence” laws to address the prayer in public school issue. These laws either permit or require teachers to start the school day with a moment of silence. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,
as of 2008, 36 states had such a law in place.
But the issue continues to be challenged in court. In 2009, after the Texas legislature rewrote the moment of silence law to include prayer, as well as reflection, meditation, or “any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student,” the purpose of the moment of silence was challenged in court. But the court found the wording was appropriate and legal, although the suit was generated after a teacher referred to the minute of silence as a time for prayer.
In 2010, an Illinois law that required a moment of silence but didn’t specify prayer was also found to be legal.
• In 2013, the governor of Louisiana signed a law that allowed students to gather for prayer and other religious purposes during non-instructional time. This right, though, is already guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution
"Voluntary prayer at public schools during non-instructional times was already legal in the U.S.," The Christian Post wrote
, "but proponents of this bill argue that it provides the proper guidelines to students so they know their religious rights without violating the First Amendment."
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• In 2013, The New York Times reported on numerous legislative packages at the state level that supported school prayer
. States listed in the article included:
– Florida, which in 2012, passed a bill that would let students read inspirational messages. The NYT said the bill “prompted groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Mr. Conn’s organization to send letters to every school district in the state threatening legal action if the law was put into practice.”
– In 2012, Missouri made a constitutional amendment to allow the state’s residents to “pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools,” the NYT said.
• In Virginia in early 2014, the governor vetoed a school prayer bill because he was concerned about “coercive prayer” or “religious messaging” taking place at school or school events. Gov. Terry McAuliffe pointed out that students already have guaranteed freedoms to practice their religion on an individual, voluntary basis.
• A North Carolina law passed in 2014 encouraged teachers and other school staff to participate in student-led religious activities. But Americans United, which works to keep church and state separate
, sent a letter to districts warning them that it is unconstitutional if teachers participate.
“It is elementary that a state law cannot override the commands of the federal [First Amendment],” AU said in its letter. “And under the U.S. Constitution, public schools must avoid exerting even ‘subtle coercive pressure’ on students to participate in religious activity.”
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