Prayer in School
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Few issues are more controversial than the notion of prayer in a public school. Since the US Supreme Court outlawed the practice in 1962, various pressure groups have sought to support or reverse this decision. For much of American history, public schools openly used Christian prayer or the Bible as a part of the curriculum. The issue that was raised before the Supreme Court was whether such prayer was a violation of the First Amendment separation between church and state.
Prayer in School and the American Civil Liberty Union
In 1955, the New York Board of Regents approved a short prayer recommended, but not required, in school districts. A group of parents, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the Board of Regents in the case that went to the US Supreme Court, which handed down it decision in Engel v. Vitale. The following year, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Abington School District v. Schempp which states that Bible readings and other school-sponsored religious activities were also in violation of the First Amendment.
Prayer in School Amendments
Since the 1960s, many cases involving prayer at extracurricular activities have reached the Supreme Court. There is nothing that prohibits the individual student from prayer in a school setting, what has been outlawed is the promulgation by the official organ of the state (the public school) of any religious worship. Study about religion is also appropriate; government-sponsored worship is a violation of the Constitution.
Most proposed school prayer amendments over the years have sought to do one of the following:
- To restore state-written prayers.
School sponsored prayer first became a topic of public debate following the 1962 Engel v. Vitale ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a prayer written by the New York State Board of Regents. The prayer, considered to be denominationally neutral, read: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country”. The New York courts granted the right of local school systems to use this prayer. The one requirement was that a student not be compelled to say the prayer if the student or parents objected.
- Allow group prayers in the public schools.
Recognizing the danger of having the state written prayers for all students, many school prayer amendments instead seek to allow teachers to lead classes in prayer on a voluntary basis. One current prayer amendment, for example, reads as follows: "Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions." The words sound innocuous enough, but the effect would be to allow a teacher to lead a group of students (e.g., his or her class) in prayer if he/she so choose.
- Allow for voluntary prayer.
The vaguest of the school prayer amendments are those that simply legalize "voluntary" prayer in the public schools. Another recently proposed amendment, for example, stipulates that "Nothing in this constitution shall prohibit the inclusion of voluntary prayer in any public school program or activity." Broadly interpreted, it would allow the state to include prayer in any school program, so long as the prayer was said voluntarily. It would also seem to allow teachers to lead their classes in prayer.