Prayer in public schools is an ongoing hot-button issue. While the individual right of a student to pray at school is legal, the influence and authority of school leaders and school environments makes religious expression and rules about it a complicated matter.
There are several issues to consider in the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on prayer in public schools. Here are the cases and the exact topics addressed when school prayer has been considered by the court:
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1962, Engle v. Vitale:
This case concerned a prayer required by law in New York State. Students were allowed to opt out of the so-called Regent’s Prayer, even though the prayer was non-sectarian. Even with these provisions, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on prayer in public schools said the school-sponsored prayer violated the Establishment of Religion cause in the First Amendment.
1963, School District of Abington Township, PA v. Schempp:
This case examined a school district policy in which students were required to start each day by reading a passage from the Bible. Students then were required to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The court ruled that Bible passages and Lord’s Prayer violated the Establishment of Religion clause in the constitution. It did not matter that students could be excused from the exercise with a note from their parents. The court ruled the recitations constituted a religious ceremony. This case was heard along with the case of Murray v. Curlett which also involved the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
1972, Lemon v. Kurtzman:
This case considered the use of public funds going to help support educational activities at parochial schools. The case resulted in what is referred to as the “Lemon Test.” The activity must pass three criteria in order to be considered legal. It must have a secular purpose, it must not advance or inhibit religious activity, and it must not excessively “entangle” church and state.
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1985, Wallace v. Jaffree:
While this case affirmed a ruling against teacher-led prayer, it also upheld an Alabama statute that allowed schools to call for a moment of silence.
1992, Lee v. Weisman:
This Supreme Court ruling on prayer in public schools involved clergy being asked to deliver prayer at school graduation ceremonies. The court ruled that the school sponsored invitation to the clergy amounted to a government sponsored religious exercise and was unconstitutional.
2000, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe:
A student school chaplain elected by the student body cannot deliver a prayer over the school’s PA system before football games. The Supreme Court ruling on prayer in public schools here involved what justices considered a violation of the Establishment of Religion clause in the constitution. The court said that the speech was not truly private expression of religion because it was delivered on state-owned property at a state-sponsored event. Since the situation could be coercive, it was found unconstitutional. The case, however, did uphold the individual student’s right to freedom of expression of religion.
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