Prayer In Public Schools: It's Time To Set The Record Straight - Americans United (2023)

Prayer In Public Schools: It's Time To Set The Record Straight

Editor’s Note: This article outlining 10 common myths about religion in public schools originally ran in Church & State magazine in March 2019 in conjunction with a story about Americans United’s victory in a school prayer case in Bossier Parish, La. Because the issue of prayer in school remains so contentious and is plagued with misinformation, we’re reprinting it here.

Myth One:

We had prayer in schools for 200 years, and no one complained until the 1960s. There are a couple of problems with this statement. For starters, public education in the United States didn’t really begin to take off until the latter half of the 19th century. That’s when states began to fund public schools (often called “common schools” then) and pass laws mandating that children be educated.

Some states had laws requiring public schools to begin the day with a prayer and/or Bible reading, but others did not. Regardless, the practice was controversial from the start. Roman Catholics often complained because the prayers recited were Protestant and the Bible used for readings was the King James Version. Some parents filed lawsuits in state courts against these coercive religious practices in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rulings that resulted were a mixed bag. Courts in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Nebraska invalidated the practices, but courts in Iowa, Massachusetts and Kentucky upheld them.

Far from no one complaining, the issue of religion in public schools was so controversial that it sometimes sparked outbreaks of violence. In the 19th century, riots and other forms of violence erupted in New York, Pennsylvania and Maine over the issue of religion in public schools.

Myth Two:

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All public schools had prayer and Bible reading prior to 1962. As mentioned above, policies on religion in schools varied from state to state. State-sponsored religious practices in public schools were less common than many people think.

In 1960, two years before the Sup­reme Court ruled on the matter, Am­ericans United surveyed states to find out what (if anything) they were doing about official Bible reading in public schools. AU found that only five states had laws on the books mandating that some form of Bible reading take place in public schools. An additional 25 states had laws allowing “optional” Bible reading at the discretion of local public school districts. The remaining states had no laws on the books addressing the matter. It’s also worth noting that despite what state laws might have said, courts in 11 states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin – had already declared the practice unconstitutional.

Myth Three:

We can find a “non-sectarian” prayer for public schools that fits all comers. A moment’s thought will demonstrate that this is impossible. In a country as diverse as the United States, there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” prayer. Many believers would find a watered-down prayer to be offensive, and, obviously, some people reject belief in God (atheists, agnostics and humanists) and thus don’t pray at all; others have non-traditional concepts of God.

The first school prayer case to reach the Supreme Court,Engel v. Vitalein 1962, challenged an allegedly “non-sectarian” prayer that had been composed by a bureaucratic body called the Board of Regents in New York state. The so-called “Regents’ Prayer” was allegedly non-sectarian and had been adopted in part to combat juvenile delinquency and ward off communism. Several parents objected to their children’s being compelled to recite a government-composed prayer and filed a lawsuit.

Myth Four:

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Only non-religious people oppose school prayer. It’s true that many non-religious people have opposed official school prayer over the years. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a prominent atheist leader, filed one of the early cases against school-sponsored Bible reading, and today many atheists are quick to oppose it as well. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a non-religious person would oppose man­datory prayer, but plenty of religious people have opposed these practices as well. When the “Regents’ Prayer” was challenged in court, many clergy labeled it spiritually vacuous. The Rev. Charles Lee, a Methodist minister in New York, blas­ted the state-written invocation, calling it “a mockery of the idea of prayer” and “an insult to our spiritual integrity.”

Myth Five:

Students who don’t want to take part in prayer can remain silent or get up and leave the room. Children should not be compelled to single themselves out and run the risk of abuse from others later by walking out of the room. Nor should they be expected to remain silent while an activity takes place that violates their fundamental rights.

Myth Six:

Thanks to the school prayer rulings, there can be no religious activity or discussion about religion in public schools at all. That’s simply not true. In the school prayer rulings of 1962 and ’63, the Supreme Court struck down only mandated, school-sponsored and coercive forms of prayer and Bible reading. Truly voluntary prayer was left intact. Students are free to engage in voluntary, non-disruptive forms of prayer, and they may read religious books during their free time. In secondary schools, students may form voluntary religious (and non-religious) clubs that meet during non-instructional time. Attendance at these clubs is entirely voluntary.

Furthermore, nothing in the school prayer rulings limits objective instruction about religion in public schools. Justice Tom Clark, who wrote the majority opinion inSchool District of Ab­ington Township v. Schemppin 1963, made this clear.

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Clark wrote, “[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. But the exercises here do not fall into those categories. They are religious exercises, required by the States in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government main­tain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion.”

Myth Seven:

If the majority of people want prayer in schools, they should be able to have it. Our constitutional system doesn’t work that way. Under the First Amendment, all religious and non-religious beliefs have equal rights. The majority does not have the right to impose its views on the minority simply because it has numerical superiority.

Myth Eight:

The lack of official prayer in schools has spawned negative consequences, such as violence and school shootings. Such claims are symptomatic of what could be characterized as lazy thinking in that they attempt to link two things that, in fact, have no connection at all (i.e., post hoc, propter hoc). Furthermore, the claim that school prayer will cure every ill that plagues modern society is simplistic. The difficulties that some schools (and by extension entire communities) are undergoing are complicated and will require equally complex solutions. A few minutes of man­dated prayer in schools is unlikely to do much to address entrenched social problems.

Myth Nine:

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Some children don’t receive religious instruction at home, and that’s why we need prayer in schools. Some children don’t receive religious instruction at home because that’s what their parents want. It is up to parents, not public school officials, to decide what religion, if any, a child is exposed to. When public school officials interfere in this relationship by imposing prayer and religious activity on youngsters against their will, they are usurping parental rights.

Myth Ten:

Because official prayer has been expelled, public schools can offer no moral instruction.While public schools can’t sponsor prayer or other religious activities, they can and do work to instill a sense of ethics and morals in students. Public schools promote cooperative learning, encourage tolerance for different points of view and promote shared civil values. Schools reward good behavior and punish infractions such as cheating, lying and disrupting class. In this sense, public schools reflect and enforce the commonly held values that are embraced by larger society.

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FAQs

What was the prayer in public schools? ›

The prayer was relatively short: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country." The board stated that the prayer would "combat juvenile delinquency and counter the spread of Communism."

Why is prayer in public schools unconstitutional? ›

Court has declared that prayer in public schools violated establishment clause. As early as Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court declared that public prayer in public schools violated the establishment clause.

Why did the US Supreme Court rule that school prayer and reading from the Bible at the start of the school day were unconstitutional? ›

In Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer in public schools violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

What year was prayer taken out of schools in the United States? ›

The U.S. Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools in a 1962 decision, saying that it violated the First Amendment. But students are allowed to meet and pray on school grounds as long as they do so privately and don't try to force others to do the same.

What year was the Ten Commandments removed from schools? ›

In Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980), the Supreme Court ruled that a Kentucky law that required the posting of the Ten Commandments on the wall of every public school classroom in the state violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment because the purpose of the display was essentially religious.

Are Muslims allowed to pray public schools? ›

Yes. Contrary to popular myth, the Supreme Court has never outlawed “prayer in schools.” Students are free to pray alone or in groups, as long as such prayers are not disruptive and do not infringe upon the rights of others.

Does school prayer violate the First Amendment? ›

REASONING The majority, via Justice Black, held that school-sponsored prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

What does the Constitution say about prayer in school? ›

"Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any State to participate in prayer.

Does the Supreme Court allow prayer in public schools? ›

Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not require students to recite a state-written prayer.

What was Vitales argument? ›

Question: Is school-sponsored, nondenominational prayer in public schools unconstitutional?

Is prayer banned in schools? ›

Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer in their official capacities, students and teachers do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The Supreme Court has made clear that "private religious speech, far from ...

Should I bring my Bible to school? ›

Bringing a Bible to school is protected under the First Amendment, and students can read it during their free time, such as during lunch, but not during a class or a time for official school activities.

What does Bible say about praying in public? ›

Jesus taught, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men … but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father who is unseen.”

Why the Bible should be taught in public schools? ›

Some who promote religion and Bible courses in public schools wish to help students better understand the world in which they live and of the role that religion plays in peoples' lives. This can be done in accordance with sound constitutional values.

Who was the woman who had prayer removed from schools? ›

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

What Supreme Court case banned prayer in public? ›

Vitale. School-sponsored prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.

Are the 10 Commandments allowed in schools? ›

The United States Supreme Court permits the Ten Commandments to be on public property so long as the goal of displaying them is not to gain support for religion.

When the Supreme Court rules that Amish people Cannot be forced to send their children to school it? ›

Jonas Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), is the case in which the United States Supreme Court found that Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education past 8th grade. The parents' fundamental right to freedom of religion was determined to outweigh the state's interest in educating their children.

What religions are protected under the First Amendment? ›

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that everyone in the United States has the right to practice his or her own religion, or no religion at all.

Can teachers now lead students in prayer? ›

CLAIM: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teachers, staff and coaches can now lead students in prayer in public schools.

What can public school teachers not do on religious freedom Day? ›

Under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, public school officials cannot lead students in prayer, participate in prayer with students, or organize, direct, or encourage students to engage in prayer.

When did schools ban the Bible? ›

So what exactly happened 50 years ago? In two landmark decisions – Engel v. Vitale on June 25, 1962, and Abington School District v. Schempp on June 17, 1963 – the Supreme Court declared school-sponsored prayer and Bible readings unconstitutional.

What countries allow prayer in schools? ›

Countries that allow or require school and other state-sponsored prayer include Greece, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Australia. The United Kingdom also requires daily worship by law, but does not enforce it.

Did the Supreme Court rule teachers can lead students in prayer? ›

The Supreme Court on Monday said separation of church and state does not prohibit public school employees from praying aloud on the job near students. The case involved a high school football coach praying post-game at the 50-yard line, joined by his players.

Did the Supreme Court reinstate prayer in schools? ›

On Monday, the United States supreme court overturned decades of precedent governing the separation of church and state, and achieved one of the most long-standing goals of the Christian right: the return of official Christian prayer to public schools.

What Supreme Court case deals with religion in schools? ›

Vitale. This First Amendment activity is based on the landmark Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale, dealing with the line between religion and public schools.

Is freedom of religion in the constitution? ›

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.

Why was freedom of religion added to the First Amendment? ›

The Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment in response to two centuries of state-sponsored religious conflict and oppression in America, and with a keen understanding of the religious persecution in European nations resulting from official state religions and religious wars.

Can a teacher wear a cross to school? ›

The First Amendment Center's A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools provides that “teachers are permitted to wear non-obtrusive jewelry, such as a cross or Star of David. But teachers should not wear clothing with a proselytizing message (e.g. a 'Jesus Saves' T-shirt).”

Should religion be taught in schools pros and cons? ›

The main argument in favor of teaching religion in schools is that it helps to instill good morals in people. It also promotes faith as religious freedom and helps explaining complicated issues in life which are not addressed by other disciplines.

Can students be excused from saluting the flag? ›

The 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, West Virginia V. Barnette, determined that no school or government can compel someone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or salute the flag.

Are bibles not allowed in public schools? ›

The U.S. Department of Education guidelines reiterate that public schools "may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture."8 In keeping with the First Amendment's mandate of governmental neutrality toward religion, any study of religion in a public ...

Can a student read a Bible story at school? ›

But noninstructional time, such as time between classes, at lunch, at recess, before and after school, students are free to read religious texts or express their beliefs under the protection of the Free Exercise Clause. Crossing lines.

Can a child read the Bible in school? ›

Can you bring a Bible to public school? Bibles may be brought into any public school. Students may read from Bibles and even use them in school projects and assignments. The Constitution prohibits the government from sponsoring a particular sect of religion.

Why is public prayer important? ›

Public worship helps Christians to achieve a deeper understanding of the Bible, the life of Jesus and Christian teachings. It also enables those who receive Holy Communion to welcome Jesus into their hearts.

Can you pray in your head? ›

So by all means pray out loud with. Words if there is no one around otherwise pray in your head it.

What are two things Jesus taught us about prayer? ›

Jesus taught His disciples how to pray. He said that some people pray only so others will see them praying. Jesus taught that we should say our personal prayers where we can be alone, if possible. He said that some people say the same words over and over when they pray.

Did Texas Ban the Bible in schools? ›

In an account headlined “The Bible is among dozens of books removed from this Texas school district,” NPR reports that at Keller Independent School District outside Fort Worth, Texas, school staff were instructed to remove books from classrooms and libraries, including “the graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank's ...

When was the Bible taught in public schools? ›

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common practice for public schools to open with an oral prayer or Bible reading. The 19th century debates over public funding for religious schools, and reading the King James Protestant Bible in the public schools was most heated in 1863 and 1876.

Do Catholic schools teach the Bible? ›

The nationally-acclaimed Catholic Biblical School curriculum focuses on balancing faith formation, knowledge, and Bible study and prayer skills.

What year was the Ten Commandments removed from schools? ›

In Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980), the Supreme Court ruled that a Kentucky law that required the posting of the Ten Commandments on the wall of every public school classroom in the state violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment because the purpose of the display was essentially religious.

When did schools ban prayer? ›

The U.S. Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer in public schools in a 1962 decision, saying that it violated the First Amendment. But students are allowed to meet and pray on school grounds as long as they do so privately and don't try to force others to do the same.

Who is a famous atheist? ›

7. Richard Dawkins (b. 1941) Dawkins is the most famous of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, and perhaps the most influential living atheist.

What has the Supreme Court said about prayer in public schools? ›

Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not require students to recite a state-written prayer.

Did the Supreme Court allow prayer in public schools? ›

But recently, the Supreme Court expanded the opportunity for public school employees to legally lead students in prayer. And it all started after a coach prayed on the 50-yard line after a game. On June 27, the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 majority opinion in Kennedy v.

When was the Lords prayer removed from Ontario schools? ›

Three years later, in September 1988, they won a decision against the Sudbury school board which had the Lord's Prayer removed from all Ontario public schools.

When was prayer removed from schools UK? ›

Clause 1 of the bill would amend section 70 of the 1998 act. This would remove the requirement to provide acts of collective worship in the following types of schools in England: Maintained schools without a religious character. Non-maintained special schools.

Is prayer banned in schools? ›

Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer in their official capacities, students and teachers do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The Supreme Court has made clear that "private religious speech, far from ...

Did the Supreme Court reinstate prayer in schools? ›

On Monday, the United States supreme court overturned decades of precedent governing the separation of church and state, and achieved one of the most long-standing goals of the Christian right: the return of official Christian prayer to public schools.

What countries allow prayer in schools? ›

Countries that allow or require school and other state-sponsored prayer include Greece, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Australia. The United Kingdom also requires daily worship by law, but does not enforce it.

Are coaches allowed to pray with students? ›

CLAIM: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teachers, staff and coaches can now lead students in prayer in public schools.

Did the Supreme Court rule teachers can lead students in prayer? ›

The Supreme Court on Monday said separation of church and state does not prohibit public school employees from praying aloud on the job near students. The case involved a high school football coach praying post-game at the 50-yard line, joined by his players.

Can the government use religious symbols? ›

The First Amendment undoubtedly protects the rights of houses of worship, homes, and businesses to display religious symbols openly and publicly. But when the government erects, funds, and displays particular religious monuments, it sends a message that certain faiths are officially preferred over all others.

Does Australia have prayer in schools? ›

Religious schools in contemporary times

This act stipulates that public school education must be secular. Schools are not permitted to promote “any particular religious practice, denomination or sect, and must be open to adherents of any philosophy, religion or faith”.

What is the meaning of school prayer? ›

Prayer in public places such as schools should be allowed for a variety of reasons. First off, school prayer is defined as a state-sanctioned or mandatory prayer by students in public schools (Phillips page 1). Based on this definition, it is logical that mandated prayer in schools can be considered school prayer.

What is the morning prayer in school? ›

A Morning Prayer

Jesus, help my ears to hear Calls for help from far and near. Jesus, help my feet to go In the way that You will show. Jesus, help my hands to do All things loving, kind, and true. Jesus, guard me through this day In all I do and all I say.

Can I withdraw my child from collective worship? ›

Parents have a right to withdraw their children from religious education (RE) and collective worship. If a parent asks for their child to be wholly or partly excused from attending any RE or collective worship at the school the school must comply unless the request is withdrawn.

Do schools have to do collective worship? ›

Non-faith state schools no longer to provide a daily act of Christian collective worship. All state sector schools which do not have a religious character are legally obliged to provide daily collective worship 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character' for all registered pupils.

Do all schools have to do collective worship? ›

What does collective worship mean? In accordance with DfE legislation, all schools must hold a daily act of collective worship that must be 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.

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