Prayer in school is one of the most hotly-debated issues involving religion in America. Indeed, the separation of church and state is deeply rooted in our Constitution. While public schools are not supposed to support one particular religious belief, neither should a school require others to accept religious or anti-religious beliefs. The “Religion at School” section focuses on school prayer and the pledge of allegiance, including the reasons for the constitutional ban, legal challenges, and the "minute of silence" option. The Supreme Court has weighed in on this hot-button issue and school prayer cases will likely continue to be heard in the courts. For more information, choose from the links below.
Religion in Public Schools
Schools cannot endorse or advance a particular religion, but they also cannot inhibit the expression of religious belief. As a general rule, students may pray on school grounds as long as the prayer is entirely initiated and led by students and does not use school resources. School religious clubs are permitted and the clubs may meet on school grounds after hours providing that other student organizations and religious groups are given equal access and treatment. If prayer can reasonably be perceived as school sponsored it will be found unconstitutional.
A significant example of this is the U.S. Court of Appeals case of Fleming v. Jefferson County School District in which students at Columbine High School were asked to make tiles for permanent display following the 1999 shooting massacre that took place at the school. Some students submitted tiles with the message "God is Love" written on them. When the school refused to display these tiles the students sued. The Supreme Court found that permitting these tiles would require them to display tiles with distasteful messages such as "God is Hate" and that since the tiles would become a permanent part of the school it had the authority to ban tiles.
Is a Minute of Silence in School Permissible?
The short answer to this question is maybe. During the 1980s school prayer advocates were searching for a way to permit prayer in schools that would not be ruled unconstitutional. The "moment of silence" was, in an early landmark case, explicitly introduced in order to permit and encourage prayer in schools. The resulting lawsuit, entitled Wallace v. Jaffree, ended with the Supreme Court ruling that the program was unconstitutional because of the stated intent in establishing the minute of silence and also because teachers would instruct willing students to pray during the minute.
Some subsequent laws mandating a moment of silence have been successful in surviving constitutional review. Virginia established a moment of silence that required children to spend a minute in meditation, prayer, or silent activity. The Court of Appeals found the law constitutional, stating that it introduced a minor and nonintrusive accommodation of religion. The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. The distinction appears to be the extent to which schools pressure students to use the time in religious contemplation. In general, even the suggestion that the moment should be used for prayer can endanger the constitutionality of a moment of silence.