Although many of the major U.S. Supreme Court rulings that defined the rules on prayer in school came in the 1960s, cases still make their way to the nation’s top court to clear up specifics on the separation of church and state.
Here are three cases that made headlines regarding school prayer in more recent years:
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Westside Community Schools v. Mergens
In 1990, the court ruled that secondary schools could allow students to meet on campus for extracurricular activities that involve religion. The groups have to be student-sponsored, and schools cannot discriminate against groups based on political or philosophical views.
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe
In 2000, the court ruled that a pre-game prayer at high school football games, done over the public address system, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
"The delivery of such a message — over the school's public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer — is not properly characterized as 'private' speech," Justice John Paul Stevens said in the majority opinion.
Lee v. Weisman
In 1992, this case came to the Supreme Court to determine whether there was a violation of the Establishment Clause when Rhode Island public schools invited clergy to be involved in graduation ceremonies at middle and high schools. The court found that clerical members offering prayers as part of the school’s official ceremony was a First Amendment violation.
“Forcing students to choose between attending a graduation ceremony containing religious elements with which they disagree or avoiding the offending practices by not attending their graduation ceremony was inherently coercive and unlawful,” the First Amendment Center wrote
. “The Court found that students who do attend are exposed to subtle coercion to appear as though they approve of or are participating in the prayer.”
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Education Week News pointed out that the Supreme Court
appears to be backing off of hearing school district and education cases.
“Over the past five years, the justices have not taken up a single case directly involving a school district or local school officials, either as the party bringing an appeal to the court or as the respondent,” EdWeek writer Mark Walsh wrote in September 2014. Avoiding becoming a referee for decisions that should be made on a local level has been a common refrain in Supreme Court writings from both the conservative and liberal judges.
"The more detailed the [Supreme] Court's supervision becomes, the more likely its law will engender further disputes among teachers and students," Walsh quoted Justice Stephen G. Breyer. "Consequently, larger numbers of those disputes will likely make their way from the schoolhouse to the courthouse. Yet no one wishes to substitute courts for school boards, or to turn the judge's chambers into the principal's office."
In 2010, Walsh reported that the high court was turning away from education cases with a religious aspect.
“Over the past two years alone, self-described religious-liberty groups on the right have asked the justices to hear appeals in some half-dozen cases involving religious expression in the public schools,” Walsh wrote.
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