You Have a Prayer?
Do you know whether students may
pray before their meals in the school cafeteria or read from the
Bible during sustained silent reading? Does your school have to
provide Muslim students a place to pray? Why do many schools no
longer hold the baccalaureate service on school grounds?
Administrators, teachers, parents and students need to know what
religious expression may or may not be allowed during the school
day. Students do have the right to express religious beliefs while
at school as long as they don’t coerce others or interfere with
the educational process. But school officials must be careful not
to sponsor religious activity. Unless these issues are handled properly,
communities can easily become divided and confused about the role
of religion in their public schools.
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. As we begin our third
century under the Constitution, Americans of many faiths — and a
growing number who express no religious preference — must learn
to live together in a diverse society. Thus the Religious Liberty
clauses of the First Amendment are at the heart of what it means
to be an American citizen.
This lesson focuses on the Equal Access Act and a Supreme Court
case involving the meeting of extracurricular religious clubs on
- The federal Equal
Access Act provided if public schools receiving federal funds
allowed student clubs not curriculum-related to organize and meet
on school grounds, they could not prohibit student-initiated clubs
with religious content or viewpoint.
of Education of Westside Schools v. Mergens, took place
in 1990. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the
federal Equal Access Act.
- 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.
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.
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 “hands
off” our religion, our ideas, our ability to express ourselves.
- Other people have rights, too.
Share with students this scene:
As students and staff arrived early one September morning, the red,
white and blue of Old Glory and the state flag barely moved in the
light breeze. Below them, students, hand in hand, formed a circle
around the poles. Their heads were bowed in prayer.
Students arrived in first period class, several expressed concern
over seeing prayer take place on school grounds in public view.
Others asked, “Why are they allowed to do that?”
Have your students answer the question: May students meet at the
flag pole on school grounds for prayer? Ask students to elaborate
on their responses.
The Supreme Court has not declared the public schools “religion-free
zones.” The Constitution permits much private religious activity.
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. Student participation in before- or after-school
events, such as See
You at the Pole is permissible. School officials, acting in
an official capacity, may neither discourage nor encourage participation
in such an event. (Source: Religion
in The Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law)
- Constitutional Background
Explain to students that this lesson will focus on issues related
to prayer and religious groups meeting on school grounds.
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
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).
- The Equal Access Act
Distribute and read “Equal
Access Act.” Discuss the main points of the Equal Access Act
with your students. Divide students into groups to determine how
the Equal Access Act applies to your school. What clubs are allowed
to meet at your school? If religious clubs meet on your campus,
are they student-led? The Equal Access Act applies to secondary
schools that receive Federal financial assistance in which a limited
open forum has been established. A limited open forum exists whenever
a public secondary school allows one or more non-curriculum related
student groups to meet on school grounds during non-instructional
time, according to U.S. Code, Title 20, Section 4071. The Equal
Access Act does not give students the right to pray before a captive
audience at school events.
- Religious Clubs in Public
Schools: Westside v. Mergens — 1990 Distribute and read Westside
v. Mergens. Students are to write individual responses
to the questions after the material is read aloud or silently.
Compare individual responses in a class discussion.
- Give students the Religious Expression
in Public Schools true/false
- Ask students
to determine if their school is a limited open forum. According
to the Equal Access Act, “a public secondary school has a limited
open forum, [when a school allows] an offering to or opportunity
for one or more non-curriculum related student groups to meet
on school premises during non-instructional time.” Chess, model
building, political, religious and many similar types of clubs
are considered to be non-curriculum based. A French club might
be considered to be curriculum related. If your school is a limited
open forum, what are the benefits and drawbacks? What student
clubs are allowed within a limited open forum environment? If
your school does not have a limited open forum, would you want
to create one?
- Divide the
class into ten groups. Each group should be assigned one of the
Religious Expression in Public Schools true/false quiz questions.
Students are to become experts on their question, knowing the
background and why the answer is what it is. Arrange for the class
to make a presentation to the student government officers, club
council , the PTSA or another group within your school. Students
could give the true/false quiz, then go over answers.
- Investigate your school’s practices with regard to freedom of
religion. Analyze these practices in the context of the First
Amendment. What different interests and needs in your school and
your community should be addressed?
- Research the moment-of-silence movement in public schools in
your state or the nation since the 1985 Supreme Court decision
472 U.S. 38 (1985). The Supreme Court found an Alabama statute
authorizing a one-minute period of silence in all public schools
“for meditation or voluntary prayer” to be unconstitutional. This
is a complex case involving the intent of the Alabama legislature.
The Court stated that the purpose of the statute “was to endorse
religion” and “the legislation was solely an effort to return
voluntary prayer to the public schools.” Government must “pursue
a course of complete neutrality toward religion.”
- Study Good News Club et
al v. Milford Central School (2001). The Court ruled that
the school district’s exclusion of the Good News Club, a private
Christian organization, from meeting after school hours in the
elementary school building did violate the free speech rights
of the club and that no Establishment Clause concerns of the school
justified that violation. Distribute and read the case summary
of Good News
Club et. al. v. Milford Central School. Students are to
write individual responses to the questions after the material
is read aloud or silently. Compare individual responses in a class
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?
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?
of Education of Westside Schools v. Mergens (1990)
Was Westside's prohibition against the formation of a Christian
club consistent with the Establishment Clause, thereby rendering
Access Act unconstitutional?
News Club et al v. Milford Central School (2001)
When Milford Central School did not grant the Good News Club,
a private Christian organization for children ages 6-10, permission
to meet after school hours at the school, did it violate the club’s
free speech rights?
Members of the Christian Legal Society have been involved with
the Equal Access Act since its inception. Online information about
their litigation, legislative advocacy and public education to
protect religious liberty of all Americans is found in the Center
for Law and Religious Freedom section.
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. This
guide includes copies of the Equal Access Act, a Q and A on the
Equal Access Act and the DOE Religious Expression in Public
Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools
Questions and answers cover 13 topics, including student prayer,
religious clubs and religious holidays. Print copy of this publication
available through the First Amendment Center
Amendment on School Prayer or Moment of Silence
ACLU response to an amendment to the U.S. Constitution "relating
to voluntary school prayer” is provided by the ACLU's Freedom
in U.S. Public Schools
Includes what the U.S. Constitution does and does not allow, landmark
court decisions, and more.
student takes stand against silence
Commentary by Charles Haynes on the law passed in 2000 by Virginia
legislators requiring a daily minute of silence in classrooms.
federal appeals panel upholds Virginia minute-of-silence law
Associated Press article announcing 4th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals decision in Brown v. Gilmore.
Nation Under God? School Prayer and the First Amendment Close
Up Foundation, 24 minutes, 1995. Teacher’s guide included. Video
features individuals involved in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)
Colby, Kimberlee Wood.
A Guide to the Equal Access Act.
A brief review of the Equal Access Act, with emphasis on the 1990
Supreme Court case. Available through Christian Legal Society..
Haynes, Charles. Teaching About Religion in American Life:
A First Amendment Guide. 1999.
A teacher’s guide to use of the new Oxford University Press reference
series, Religion in American Life.
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
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.