Is it Legal to Pray in School?

Prayer in public schools has, is, and will continue to be a controversial issue in the United States. This is true even though the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled over half a century ago in 1962 against school-sponsored or school-led prayer in Engel v. Vitale. Critics of the decision claim the absence or removal of prayer in public schools has led to the increase in violence, drug use, and societal decay. It is important to understand, however, that schools are not allowed to prohibit students from praying voluntarily. Should a student decide to do so, he or she can do so silently, without disrupting others, and must not subject others to peer pressure.

School-Sponsored Prayer: Federal Ban

Before the SCOTUS ruling in Engel, public schools often led students in Christian-based prayer at the start of the school day. A group of predominantly Jewish families from Hyde Park, New York filed suit alleging the prayer violated their children’s constitutional rights. In an 8-1 decision, the SCOTUS held school-sponsored prayer violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in the Engel case. The Court reasoned, in part, that since public schools are government institutions, school-led prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This clause protects citizens from governmental establishment of a particular, official religion. While the prayer in the Engel case only made vague references to an “Almighty God” the Court found the prayer still promoted a group of monotheistic religions; thus, violating the Constitution.

School Prayer Laws: State Level

Most states across the country changed their laws regarding school prayer to fall in line and comply with the 1962 SCOTUS decision in Engel. Accordingly, some state laws permit prayer, but only if it is voluntarily, silent, and non-disruptive. Other states repealed their school prayer laws altogether. Still others have passed legislation that allows for a short period of silence during which a student may pray, meditate, or engage in silent activity. Other states, however, defied the SCOTUS decision by enacting new statutes permitting several types of school-sponsored prayer. States that still have active unconstitutional school prayer laws include Alabama, Montana, and North Dakota.

Religion and Academic Studies

It is important to understand that the SCOTUS decision is limited to prayer. The ban does not include the use of scriptures, religious imagery, or religious ideas in the context of academia. Part of the reasoning for this is because without the basic knowledge and understanding of Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, students would have difficulty understanding certain periods in history like the Renaissance or the Crusades. Of note, any mention of religion or display of religious imagery must serve a secular purpose to be allowable under the law.

If you have any questions about prayer in schools, or any other legal question. Contact the skilled Las Vegas attorneys at Parry & Pfau today.

(image courtesy of Ben White)