The Case Against Government Sponsored Prayer
Tom Peters


 In the 1960's several Supreme Court rulings effectively ended the practice of state-supported and state-mandated school prayer. Since this time religious conservatives have campaigned vigorously for a constitutional amendment that would overturn these decisions. Unfortunately, the conservative argument for school prayer is based on a flat distortions of the truth, and a deaf ear to the Constitution. Contrary to their assertions, prayer in general has not been outlawed. Contrary to their assurances, a school prayer amendment would rewrite church/state law, and would open up a gaping hole in the middle of the First Amendment. On this page we present the case against amending the Constitution, and losing our religious freedoms.

What would a school prayer ammendment do?

Most of the school prayer amendments proposed over the years would do one of three things:

Amendments that would restore state-written prayers.

The Supreme Court decisions of the 1960's invalidated the practice of state-written or state-mandated prayer. In Engle v. Vitale (1962), for example, the Court struck down a prayer written by the New York State Board of Regents, "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings on us, our parents, our teachers and our Country." Typically, these prayers were recited at the beginning of the school day. Some early prayer Amendments sought to restore the power of the state to formulate such prayers and have them said on a voluntary basis. Very few people currently advocate this type of amendment.

Amendments that would allow group prayers in the public schools.

Recognizing the danger of having the state write 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 (eg., his or her class) in prayer if he/she so choose.

Amendments that would 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.

Additionally, we note that, on the state level, many religious conservatives advocate moment of silence laws, i.e., laws that would establish a moment of undirected silence in the public schools during which students can pray, meditate, or daydream so long as it is done silently. While such laws appear to be constitutional on the basis of recent Supreme Court rulings (Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985), most separationists consider such laws unnecessary (since school students already have the right to pray). Additionally, separationists note that moment of silence laws, while technically legal, can be implemented in an unconstitutional manner as, for example, when teachers clearly indicate that they wants their students to pray during those moments of silence.

Separationists would object to all three categories of school prayer amendments on both Constitutional and practical grounds.

Is government sponsored prayer needed?

Research by Susan Batte and Tom Peters

There is a secret about prayer in the public schools that the religious right doesn't want you to know: school prayer, like most religious activity, is legal. Completely, thoroughly, and absolutely legal. It was not outlawed in the 1960's; it has never been outlawed. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, the Supreme Court has not made schools a "religion free zone," has not "kicked God out of the public schools," has not "made it illegal to speak about God," and has not "made it illegal to pray in school." These claims are false, and the religious right knows this. Rather, the religious right popularizes these claims to make religious persons believe that their rights are being suppressed in the public schools, thereby gaining support for their political program.

How do we know this? Because when the religious right organizations go to court to argue in favor of the rights of students they quote the law correctly. In court they will argue that there is nothing in the school prayer decisions of the 1960s that prevents students from praying. We completely agree. In this section we look more carefully at the evidence that there is no problem with school prayer in America, and that a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of students to pray is simply not needed.

What do the school prayer decisions actually say?

Is prayer being suppressed in the public schools?

Were prayer and Bible reading widespread before 1962?

What about prayer during graduation ceremonies and official school activities?

Is government sponsored prayer constitutional?

As we have already demonstrated, the law with respect to school prayer is clear: when organized, supported, or required by the state, school prayer is illegal. Our purpose in this document is to explain in a somewhat more orderly manner why this is the case.

Briefly, state-supported prayer amounts to the establishment of a religious practice. This is true whether the state actually prescribes the prayer to be said, or allows teachers and students to compose the prayer as they see fit. Let's use the famous Engle v. Vitale case to illustrate our argument.

Engle v. Vitale revolved around a New York law that required school officials to publically recite each school day the following prayer, composed by the New York Board of Regents:

The Court ruled, correctly in our opinion, that the New York law violated the First Amendment. Indeed it's difficult to image how the Court could have ruled otherwise. Prayer is, without question, a religious exercise, and when the state requires that a prayer be recited, it is establishing a religious practice. Additionally, it violates free exercise for the state to expose students to prayer against their will, or to force students to absent themselves from the classroom to avoid a prayer they do not want to hear. Finally, we note that, despite the fact that this prayer was written to be as general and non-sectarian as possible, it still establishes religious beliefs, beliefs that surely do not reflect the religious sensibilities of many students. Christians, for example, might justifiably complain that the prayer is not offered in the name of Christ, while polytheists and adherents to new-age religions might have problems with the implied assertion that there is a single God, or that this God is almighty. And non-theists would certainly object to repeating words that imply that they are "dependent" on a God in which they do not believe. No matter how charitably one views the facts of Engle v. Vitale, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Regents' prayer would not be acceptable to many students.

In our e-mail and usenet correspondence we have heard a number of arguments about why prayers of the Engle v. Vitale sort either do not violate the Constitution, or can be made to not violate the Constitution. Let's look at some of the more important of these arguments:

In summary, organized school prayer is unconstitutional for perfectly good reasons. You don't have to be a legal scholar to understand why it's wrong for the state to organize prayer. When the state forces you to pray, it is forcing you to participate in a religious practice. That amounts to establishment of religion, and that's unconstitutional.

Will a school prayer ammendment work?

Aside from issues of constitutionality, there remains the issue of whether school prayer would be beneficial, either for the public schools or for the nation as a whole. Supporters of school prayer sometimes assume that the value of prayer is self-evident, but we are skeptical. In fact, we think that school prayer has the potential to be a profoundly negative force in American life. Consider the following:

© 1996

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