Public Schools and Prayer — Do They Mix?

  U.S. History, Civics

Who could be hurt by a prayer for the safety of all players?

What could be more innocent than an invocation that your team win the trophy?

Where can players and parents pray?

Should a Muslim player’s prayers be included?

Well, it depends. Who sponsors the prayer? Who decides who prays? Who feels included and who feels left out?

When the authors of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution wrote, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …,” they sparked a debate that continues today.

Does prayer in school threaten religious liberty? Or does it simply make room for individual expression of religious beliefs in the classroom?

For more than 200 years, the First Amendment has protected religious freedom, including the right not to believe. This includes religious expression by students in public schools. Whether we’re talking about prayer at the cafeteria table, before the homecoming game or as part of a graduation ceremony, the appropriate role of religion at events in public schools is confronted.

Since a 1962 Supreme Court decision disallowing government-sponsored school prayer, confusion and controversy have existed over the issue of prayer and religious expression in public schools. In the 1990s the debate shifted from teacher-led or school-sponsored prayer in schools to student-initiated and student-led prayer — especially before a captive audience.

This lesson focuses on three Supreme Court cases involving prayer in schools.

  • The first Supreme Court case studied in this lesson is Engel v. Vitale (1962). This landmark decision made it unconstitutional for school authorities to lead students in organized school prayer.

  • The next Supreme Court case studied in this lesson is Lee v. Weisman (1992), a landmark case involving prayer at public school graduation ceremonies. Lee v. Weisman reaffirmed that the school may not promote or sponsor prayer at school events.

  • The last Supreme Court case studied in this lesson is Santa Fe Independent School District v. DOE (2000) that extends the issue of prayer to the football stadium. Santa Fe Independent School District v. DOE addressed the right of students to give a prayer at school events and suggested when “student-led” is actually “school-sponsored.”

After reviewing the Establishment and the Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, students will study Engel v. Vitale. Students will then be challenged to apply these constitutional principles and legal precedent to the latter two cases. After a quiz, students will write a comparison-contrast essay.

Key Concepts

  • Religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, is a basic and inalienable right founded on the inviolable dignity of the person.

  • The Supreme Court has interpreted “free exercise” to mean that any individual may believe anything he or she wants, but there may be times when the state can limit or interfere with practices that flow from those beliefs.

  • Public schools, as extensions of the government, may neither promote nor prohibit religious belief or nonbelief.

  • Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers as long as they are not disruptive.

  • The right to engage in voluntary prayer does not include the right to have a captive audience for that prayer or to compel other students to participate.

  • Public schools must work for fairness to protect the freedom of conscience of every student and parent.

First Principles
Go to this curriculum’s First Principles. The First Principles document was developed to explain in practical, everyday terms just what the First Amendment means.

Read the explanations to the principles listed below. They have special relevance to the activities in this lesson.

  • The First Amendment affirms the freedom of the individual.

  • The First Amendment tells the government to keep its “hand off” our religion, our ideas, our ability to express ourselves.

  • Other people have rights, too.

First Moments
Back-to-School night, the homecoming dance and Friday night football games are familiar fall rituals in America’s public schools. In many places there’s another ritual: The football team and coaches huddle to pray before the game. Is that allowed under the First Amendment?

Divide the class into five groups. Assign each group a different role:

  • Group 1 — coaches of the football team

  • Group 2 — members of the football team

  • Group 3 — parents of students who attend the school

  • Group 4 — administrators of the school

  • Group 5 — members of clergy in your community

Students are now to discuss the questions from the perspective of these interest groups. They should understand that not every coach, not every principal, not every member of the clergy would think like others in his or her interest group, but each group can determine what the general attitudes of its members might be. After five minutes have groups share their perspectives. Do the groups agree or disagree? Did role playing change the responses of anyone? Why or why not?

Through this opening activity make the distinction between student-led and student-initiated prayer and that which is school-sponsored and faculty-led. Students do have a right to pray in a huddle, but the coach may not participate. Just as players in a huddle have the right to pray, players have the right not to pray. Religious exercise is not to be coerced.


  1. Constitutional Background
    Explain to students that this lesson will focus on when and if students may pray in a public school. As students are aware, public schools are an “extension” of the government, so there are many opportunities for controversy to arise when schools and religion interact.

    Review the two clauses of the First Amendment that deal with freedom of religion. You may wish to use lessons provided by the First Amendment Center: What’s the (No) Establishment Clause? focuses on the Establishment Clause and You Are Free to Exercise focuses on the Free Exercise Clause.

    The Establishment Clause says that the government (including public schools) cannot support any one religion. Justice Hugo Black, author of the majority opinion in Engel v. Vitale (1962), reminded his readers that the Establishment Clause rests upon the belief that “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.” As stated in the Williamsburg Charter, “The No Establishment clause separates Church from State but not religion from politics or public life. It prevents the confusion of religion and government which has been a leading source of repression and coercion throughout history.”

    The Free Exercise Clause protects people’s right to practice or change their chosen religion (or to practice no religion at all).

  2. Prayer to Begin the Day in Public Schools: Engel v. Vitale (1962) was the first of a series of Supreme Court cases in which the Court used the Establishment Clause to eliminate religious activities which had traditionally been part of public ceremonies. Teachers may wish to refer to “Prayer to Begin the Day in Public Schools” for a summary of this case. After discussion of the case summary, ask students to respond to the First Amendment question this case raised: Does the reading of a nondenominational prayer at the start of the school day violate the Establishment Clause? Teachers might include these questions during discussion:

    • To what extent have education and religion been intertwined in American schools?

      Here are a few facts to consider during discussion:

      • The Roxbury Latin School, the first formal school for children, was established by Puritans in 1635. Reading the Bible was at the core of their education. Students were taught to read so that they could read the Bible.

      • The Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony established America’s first college in 1636. It was named after its first benefactor, John Harvard, a young minister. Although Harvard was never formally affiliated with any denomination, many of its first graduates became ministers to Puritan congregations.

      • America’s second oldest university, The College of William and Mary, was established in 1693 in Williamsburg, Va., by charter of King William III and Mary II. When Thomas Jefferson enrolled in 1760 at the age of 16, the college program included a philosophy school, a grammar school for 12- to 15-year-old boys, a divinity school to prepare for ordination in the Church of England and an Indian school that was founded for the Christianization of Native American boys.

      • Most public schools up until the Civil War were based on the idea that school and church should work together to teach a Protestant form of religion.

      • Horace Mann's influence on education grew during the 19th century. He believed that schools should help students become informed enough to choose their own religion in later life.

      • In New York City, separate schools directed by different religions were at first supported by state funds. Then the legislature decided to fund only the Free School Society's schools, devoted to the city's poor on a non-sectarian basis.

      • When “sectarian teaching” was banned from the curriculum by politicians and administrators, Protestant prayers and Bible readings were retained. Many Catholic parents, not wanting their children subjected to readings from the Protestant version of the Bible, chose to send their children to private Catholic schools.

    • Would a nondenominational prayer shared daily by the school community strengthen a school’s character education program?

    Download and give students a copy of “Prayer to Begin the Day in Public Schools” Share with students and discuss the decision of the Supreme Court and the opinion of the Court written by Justice Hugo Black.

  3. Prayer at Public School Graduation: School officials continued to pray at official ceremonial events such as homecoming games and graduation services after the 1962 decision. Lee v. Weisman (1992), 30 years later addressed the issue of prayers at a public school graduation ceremony where attendance was voluntary and the prayers were intended to be nondenominational. Ask students the following questions to help them think about the issues raised in Lee v. Weisman:

    • Why is it important that the case involves a public school?

    • To what extent should attendance at a public school graduation ceremony be considered voluntary? Why might this be important when reviewing the case?

    • What is a “captive audience”? What is “coercion”?

    • What would make a prayer such as an invocation or benediction “nondenominational”? Why is this important when considering issues of free exercise vs. separation of church and state?

    Download and give students “Prayer at Public School Graduation Ceremonies.” Ask each student to write a three-sentence opinion on the case. Their opinions should answer the question: Does prayer at public school graduation ceremonies violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause? Pair students and ask the pairs to compare responses and try to craft a common opinion. Combine pairs into groups of four and ask that they again share opinions and try to reach a consensus. Have the groups of four report opinions to the large group and discuss reasons groups gave to support their opinions that prayer at graduation does or does not violate the Establishment Clause.

    Explain to the class that in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Lee v. Weisman, that the prayer did violate the Establishment Clause. The Court’s majority argued that such prayers either violated the “wall of separation” between church and state or implied a subtle coercion on the part of the state (through the schools) to participate in religious activities. The dissenting justices argued that prayers such as these were a long tradition in U.S. society, were not coercive, and did not violate the Establishment Clause. Survey students to assess their reactions to the decision.

  4. Public Address Prayer at Football Games: Discuss whether sports teams at your school huddle for prayer before a game. Why do they or don’t they? What are students’ opinions of a prayer being read over the speaker system before school-sponsored athletic events? Review Santa Fe Independent School District v. DOE (2000) and complete the suggested activity. Points of Discussion and Answers” are provided for teachers. In this Texas case, the Supreme Court ruled that students could not lead prayers at public school athletic events because it gave the appearance of school endorsement.

  5. Conclude the lesson by giving students an informal “quiz.” Download and give students “May They Do That?” Now that students have studied three Supreme Court cases involving prayer in the school setting, they are asked to tell what they think students and school authorities may do. Answers are provided for teachers below the questions.

  6. For homework, students write a short essay that compares and contrasts the rulings in Engel v. Vitale, Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe Independent School District v. DOE. The essay should demonstrate student understanding of how Supreme Court decisions have affected the meaning and practice of religious freedom.


  1. Develop a policy for the classroom and the school that would promote respect for differences in religious belief and practice while enforcing student rights to freedom of religion under the First Amendment. Consider school events, choir concerts, religious holidays, baccalaureate services and curriculum issues.

  2. The U.S. Department of Education offers guidelines concerning “constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.” The most recent guidelines, issued in 2003 by then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige, cover topics ranging from “Prayer During Noninstructional Time” to “Moments of Silence” to “Prayer at Graduation.” Have students read over the guidelines, available online here.

    As a class, discuss the rules this document lays out. Possible guiding questions include: Do the guidelines seem fair? Do they align with the policies in your school? Is the intent of each of the guidelines clear, or are some confusing? (For example, how should a school’s option to “disclaim official endorsement of events sponsored by private groups, provided it does so in a manner that neither favors nor disfavors groups that meet to engage in prayer or religious speech” be interpreted?) Which guidelines seem like the most difficult to adhere to and why? Which ones seem like the easiest to adhere to and why? How do students’ rights to religious expression in school compare to teachers’ rights to religious expression while acting in a professional capacity?

On the Web

Santa Fe Independent School District v. DOE (2000)
Does the Sante Fe Independent School District’s policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Lee v. Weisman (1992)
Does the inclusion of clergy who offer prayers at official public school ceremonies violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Abington Township v. Schempp (1963)
Did the Pennsylvania law and Abington's policy, requiring public school students to participate in classroom religious exercises, violate the religious freedom of students as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?

Engel v. Vitale (1962)
Does the reading of a nondenominational prayer at the start of the school day violate the "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment?

Finding Common Ground
Online version of Finding Common Ground, Charles Haynes’ First Amendment guide to religion and public education. Print version is available through Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.

Religion and Public Schools
U.S. Department of Education guidelines, publications and resources on the topic of religious expression in public schools.

Prayer in U.S. Public Schools
Includes what the U.S. Constitution does and does not allow, landmark court decisions, and more.

Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools
Charles Haynes and Oliver Thomas’ guide answers your questions about religious expression in public schools.

National Standards
United States History, Standard 4: Understands how political, religious, and social institutions emerged in the English colonies.

United States History, Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.

Civics, Standard 8: Understands the central ideas of American constitutional government and how this form of government has shaped the character of American society.

Civics, Standard 25: Understands issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights.

Civics Standard 26: Understands issues regarding the proper scope and limits of rights and the relationships among personal, political, and economic rights.

United States History, Standard 4, Grades 7-8: Understands the role of religion in the English colonies (e.g., the evolution of religious freedom, treatment of religious dissenters such as Anne Hutchison, the concept of the separation of church and state); Grades 9-12: Understands characteristics of religious development in colonial America (e.g., the presence of diverse religious groups and their contributions to religious freedom; the political and religious influence of the Great Awakening; the major tenets of Puritanism and its legacy in American society; the dissension of Anne Hutchison and Roger Williams, and Puritan objections to their ideas and behavior).

United States History, Standard 31: Grades 7-8: Understands the growth of religious issues in contemporary society (e.g., the growth of the Christian evangelical movement and its use of modern telecommunications, issues regarding the guarantee of no establishment of religion and the free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, the significance of religious groups in local communities and their approaches to social issues); Grades 9-12: Understands how the rise of religious groups and movements influenced political issues in contemporary American society; how Supreme Court decisions since 1968 have affected the meaning and practice of religious freedom.

Civics, Standard 8, Grades 6-8: Knows opposing positions on current issues involving constitutional protection of individual rights such as limits on speech (e.g., "hate speech," advertising), separation of church and state (e.g., school vouchers, prayer in public schools), cruel and unusual punishment (e.g., death penalty), search and seizure (e.g., warrantless searches), and privacy (e.g., national identification cards, wiretapping); Grades 9-12: Knows the major ideas about republican government that influenced the development of the United States Constitution (e.g., the concept of representative government, the importance of civic virtue or concern for the common good).

Civics, Standard 25, Grades 6-8: Knows what constitutes personal rights; Grades 6-8: Understands the importance to individuals and society of such personal rights as freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of expression and association, freedom of movement and residence, and privacy; Grades 9-12: Understands the importance to individuals and to society of personal rights such as freedom of thought and conscience, privacy and personal autonomy, and the right to due process of law and equal protection of the law.

Civics, Standard 26, Grades 6-8: Understands what is meant by the "scope and limits" of a right; Grades 6-8: Understands the argument that all rights have limits, and knows criteria commonly used in determining what limits should be placed on specific rights (e.g., clear and present danger rule, compelling government interest test, national security, libel or slander, public safety, equal opportunity); Grades 6-8: Understands different positions on a contemporary conflict between rights (e.g., right of a fair trial and right to a free press; right to privacy and right to freedom of expression); Grades 9-12: Understands different positions on a contemporary conflict between rights such as one person's right to free speech versus another person's right to be heard.