The debate about prayer in public schools has been challenged in U.S. courts since 1948 when one case, Engel v. Vitale, put an end to a New York school’s required prayer at the start of the day and set the precedent for future cases.
But the ongoing debate about prayer in public schools isn’t confined to the courts. Here are five key facts about why this isn’t a settled issue:
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• Understanding the consistent decisions of the Supreme Court in regard to school prayer is helped by knowing the Establishment Clause, which is commonly cited by the courts as the reason for stopping certain practices considered religious in schools. It comes from the First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment
In the 1962 case that is considered by many to be the first that banned school prayer, Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a New York school district was violating the Establishment Clause when it required students to say a specific prayer every day.
"The majority stated that the provision allowing students to absent themselves from this activity did not make the law constitutional because the purpose of the First Amendment was to prevent government interference with religion," according to a summary of the case on USCourts.gov
. "The majority noted that religion is very important to a vast majority of the American people. Since Americans adhere to a wide variety of beliefs, it is not appropriate for the government to endorse any particular belief system. The majority noted that wars, persecutions, and other destructive measures often arose in the past when the government involved itself in religious affairs."
• One of the keys in the school prayer debate is whether the prayer is “state sponsored.” According to Freedom from Religion Foundation
, “The courts have declared government-fostered prayers unconstitutional — those led, required, sanctioned, scheduled or suggested by officials.” However, prayers that are not state-sponsored, such as those said individually by students, always have been legal.
“The claim that public schools are hostile to Christians may rev up caucus-goers in Iowa, but there’s only one problem: It isn’t true,” The Washington Post wrote. “Truth be told, students of all faiths
are actually free to pray alone or in groups during the school day, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others. Of course, the right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion does not necessarily include the right to preach to a captive audience, like an assembly, or to compel other students to participate.”
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• When students get in trouble for praying in school, it sometimes is because school officials don’t completely understand the law.
For instance, a 5-year-old girl was stopped from saying a prayer over her lunch by a school employee in Florida, the institute said. When the situation was investigated, The Liberty Institute reported
, “After a thorough investigation, Seminole County Schools offered an apology to the Perez family, retrained their employees on matters involving student religious liberty, and reassured the community that such a violation of the First Amendment, state and federal law, and Supreme Court precedent will never happen again.”
• When surveyed, people tend to think restrictions on prayer in schools are tougher than they are, the Pew Research Center reported
“Americans are well-informed about the Supreme Court’s rulings on school prayer. Of the 41 questions that Pew Research asked in its 2010 Religious Knowledge Survey, the single question the largest number of people got right is whether the Supreme Court rulings allow teachers to lead public school classes in prayer. Nearly nine-in-ten respondents (89%) correctly answered that this is not allowed,” Pew said. “But the survey also found that many people think constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are. Only 36% of the respondents to the survey knew that public school teachers are allowed to teach comparative religion courses, and just 23% were aware that teachers can read from the Bible as an example of literature.”
Pew also found in a 2012 survey that 65 percent of Americans “believe liberals have gone too far trying to keep religion out of schools and government.” Forty-eight percent think “conservative Christians hve gone too far to try to impose religious values on the country.”
• Issues continue to arise about what actions violate the Establishment Clause, and therefore the court rulings that have occurred regarding school prayer. In November 2014, for instance, a prayer said during a Veterans Day assembly sparked controversy in Louisiana.
After a student complained about the prayer, the school district said it shouldn’t have taken place. But students stood up to argue, saying that the History Club was responsible for the assembly, and because of that, one side contended, it was a student-run event where a prayer would be allowed. But KATC reported that another student, an atheist
, said she could not have left the assembly and she supported the school’s decision that the prayer should not have occurred.
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