Schools and Prayer — Do They Mix?
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
can players and parents pray?
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
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
- 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.
- 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 “hand off”
our religion, our ideas, our ability to express ourselves.
- Other people have rights, too.
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
Divide the class into five groups. Assign each group a different
- 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.
- 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
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).
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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.
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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?
v. Weisman (1992)
Does the inclusion of clergy who offer prayers at official public school ceremonies violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?
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?
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.
and Public Schools
U.S. Department of Education guidelines, publications and resources on the topic of religious expression in public schools.
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.
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
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Civics, Standard 8: Understands the central ideas of American constitutional
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Civics, Standard 25: Understands issues regarding personal, political,
and economic rights.
Civics Standard 26: Understands issues regarding the proper scope
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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
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press; right to privacy and right to freedom of expression); Grades
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between rights such as one person's right to free speech versus
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