The controversial issue of prayer in public schools isn’t confined to the classroom.
Since the Supreme Court decided in the 1960s that school-sponsored prayer was not OK in public schools, the issue of exactly what is school-sponsored and what events are included in that ruling has been thrashed out, sometimes in court and sometimes through challenges within the schools.
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• In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the school could not have a prayer announced over the school’s intercom before athletic events. A Mormon family and a Catholic family filed suit saying this violated the Establishment Clause. While the lawsuit was pending, the district changed its policy to permit, but not require “student-initiated and student-led prayer at all home games and which authorized two student elections, the first to determine whether ‘invocations’ should be delivered at games, and the second to select the spokesperson to deliver them,” Oyez said
Despite arguments that the football prayers were private student speech, the Supreme Court ruled that the district’s policy violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause. “The Court concluded that the football game prayers were public speech authorized by a government policy and taking place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events and that the District's policy involved both perceived and actual government endorsement of the delivery of prayer at important school events,” Oyez said.
• Prayers at graduation ceremonies came under scrutiny in the 1990s in Lee v Weisman over Providence, Rhode Island, public middle and high schools asking clergy to offer invocations and benedictions at graduation ceremonies. The court held the decisions of the Court of Appeals, and the District Court before it, that “including clergy who offer prayers as part of an official public school graduation ceremony is forbidden by the Establishment Clause,” the Legal Information Institute said
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• In November 2014, it was reported that students at a Colorado high school were not allowed to continue meeting for a Christian prayer group session every day during their seminar period. Although some media stories presented the situation as school administrators stopping students from praying and singing “Amazing Grace,” Americans United said
that wasn’t the case. It appeared, in fact, that the school had violated rules by allowing the students to meet during seminar time for several years to pray. Seminar was supposed to be part of the educational day, and the courts have ruled that students can meet for religious activities before and after instructional time.
• A Gainesville, Georgia, school district allowed coaches and faculty to participate in student-led prayer sessions, which led the American Humanist Association
to challenge the district for allowing “the school’s football coaches ... to use their position to promote Christianity on the football team by integrating Bible verses into functional team documents and team promotions in various ways.”
The school district handled the situation, sending a memo out reminding district employees that they can’t lead students in prayer, the AU said.
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