General Rule: Organized prayer in the public school setting, whether in the classroom
or at a school-sponsored event, is unconstitutional. The only type of prayer that
is constitutionally permissible is private, voluntary student prayer that does not
interfere with the school's educational mission.
May students pray? Students have the right to engage in voluntary individual prayer that
is not coercive and does not substantially disrupt the school's educational mission and activities.
For example, all students have the right to say a blessing before eating a meal.
However, school officials must not promote or encourage a student's personal prayer.
Students may engage with other students in religious activity during non-curricular periods
as long as the activity is not coercive or disruptive. In addition, while students may speak
about religious topics with their peers, school officials should intercede if such discussions
become religious harassment. It is essential that private religious activity not materially disrupt
the school's educational mission and activities. Personal religious activity may not interfere
with the rights or well-being of other students, and the threat of student harassment and
pressure must be carefully monitored. It is also critical to ensure that the religious activity is
actually student-initiated, and that no school employee supervises or participates in the
activity. Any school promotion or endorsement of a student's private religious activity is
Are vocal prayer and Bible reading in the classroom permitted? Vocal denominational or
nondenominational prayer, and ceremonial reading from the Bible, are unconstitutional
practices in the public school classroom. 8 It is legally irrelevant if the prayer or Bible reading
is voluntary, or if students may be excused from the activity or classroom during the
prayer. Student volunteers may not offer prayers for recitation. 9 Similarly, student volunteers
are prohibited from broadcasting prayers over a school intercom system into the class-room. 10
It is irrelevant in any school context that a prayer is nondenominational. Even a so-called
"nondenominational prayer" prefers and advances religion over non-religion
(because composing truly nondenominational prayers is very hard to do, such
prayers typically prefer one religion over others).
"[ T] he Establishment Clause forbids state-sponsored prayers in public school settings
no matter how nondenominational the prayers may be." Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577
Can a school or state require a moment of silence in the classroom?
The U. S. Supreme
Court struck down a statute requiring a moment of silence which students could use for
silent prayer or meditation because it was enacted for the purpose of advancing religion. 11, 12
The Supreme Court has not determined if a moment of silence can ever be constitutional.
The Anti-Defamation League takes the position that an organized moment of silence will
almost inevitably be unconstitutional since both the purpose and effect of such moments of
silence are invariably to advance religion.
Can there be prayer before or after athletic events or activities?
A school district's policy
of permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer before football games is unconstitutional. 13
It is also unconstitutional for a school official, including a coach, to initiate or lead a
team in prayer. 14 Nor may a school official ask a team member or any other student to initiate
or lead a prayer before, during or after a public or school-sponsored athletic activity or
event. 15 It is also unconstitutional for a member of the clergy to offer prayers before or after
public school athletic activities or events. 16 Voluntary prayer presented and led by students
without official permission or sanction may be constitutional, provided that it is not coercive
in any way.
Can there be prayer at graduation ceremonies?
Prayers delivered by clergy at official public
school graduation ceremonies are unconstitutional. 17 The fact that a prayer is nondenominational
or voluntary does not render it constitutional. The U. S. Supreme Court has not
specifically ruled on whether student-initiated nonsectarian graduation prayer is constitutional,
and the lower Federal courts disagree on the issue. However, when the Supreme
Court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe that a district policy allowing student-initiated
and student-led prayer before football games was unconstitutional, it effectively
ruled-out the possibility that any district policy allowing student-initiated and student-led
prayers would be permissible at graduation ceremonies. Moreover, in both Santa Fe v. Doe
and Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court expressed particular concern that students could be
coerced, through pressure from their peers and others, into praying during school events
such as football games and graduation ceremonies. This danger exists regardless of whether
it is a member of the clergy or a student who offers the prayer.
The Court also emphasized in Weisman and Santa Fe that attendance at major school events
like graduation or football games should not be considered "voluntary" even if authorities
officially designate it as such. Weekly football games and high school graduation are central
parts of student life and students should be able to attend these events without fear of religious
coercion. However, baccalaureate services, which are distinct and separate from official
graduation ceremonies, may constitutionally include prayers and religious sermons.
Such events must be privately sponsored and must not be led or sponsored by school personnel.
Any school endorsement of such events should be actively discouraged.
Can there be prayer at school assemblies? School officials, employees or outsiders must not
offer prayers at school assemblies. Even if attendance is voluntary, students may not deliver
prayers at school assemblies either. 18 Student-initiated prayer at school assemblies is
unconstitutional even if the prayer is nonproselytizing and nonsectarian. 19
May teachers pray in school? It is unconstitutional for teachers to pray with or in the presence
of students in school or in their capacities as teachers or representatives of the school.
Indeed, teachers may have their free speech and free exercise rights to speak about religious
matters and otherwise say prayers in the presence of students abridged in an effort to ensure
that there is no appearance that the school is violating the Establishment Clause. Because
teachers hold such a special status in the school and are viewed as government officials
speaking to a group that is both a captive audience and extremely impressionable, religious
speech by teachers or other school personnel will be seen as a state endorsement of religion. 20
The Supreme Court has said that "the interest of the State in avoiding an Establishment
Clause violation 'may be [a] compelling' one justifying an abridgement of free speech otherwise
protected by the First Amendment... ." 21 It is also impermissible for a teacher to read
the Bible in front of students during a daily silent reading period. 22
Can school boards say prayers prior to their meetings? While the Supreme Court has
upheld the right of legislative bodies to open their sessions with a prayer, 23 other courts have
addressed and struck down prayers in a school board setting as such meetings are "inextricably
intertwined with the public school system." 24
Football Coach Leads Team in Prayer
On the day of the Central Valley High School football championship, the coach gave his
team a last-minute pep talk in the Bulldogs' locker room. He then led the team in a
prayer, as he traditionally did before each athletic event. Richard Nelson, a student, felt
uncomfortable reciting the prayer because he was an atheist. He mentioned his discomfort
to the coach who responded that Richard should simply stand in silence or feel
free to leave the room while his teammates prayed together.
Is the team prayer constitutional? Is the coach's solution viable?
The team prayer led by Richard Nelson's coach is unconstitutional and the coach's offered solution
is unacceptable. He has created an environment where Richard will feel isolated and as if he
belonged to this group less than the other athletes. Moreover, as a school official, the coach cannot
endorse religion as he is doing here.
Fourth-grader Prayer and Religious Discussion at Recess
Every day at recess, Jessica Lewis, a fourth-grade student, sits under a tree in the schoolyard,
recites prayers, and engages her classmates in discussions of a religious nature.
The recess monitor, unsure of whether Jessica's activities violate the school's prohibition
against classroom prayer, alerts school officials who forbid Jessica's recess prayers and
discussions. Jessica's mother threatens to sue the school officials, claiming that their
interference with her daughter's activities was unconstitutional.
Does Mrs. Lewis have a valid claim? How should the school respond?
The school should allow Jessica Lewis to engage in prayer and religious discussions with her
classmates during recess provided that her activity is not disruptive and does not coerce or otherwise
infringe upon the rights of other students.
School Policy Permitting Prayer by Student at Graduation
A school district is reviewing its graduation ceremony policy. The policy calls on a member
of the local clergy to deliver a "non-sectarian, non-proselytizing" prayer at the start
of the ceremony. After the parent of a graduating senior complains, the school district
would like to substitute a student who is elected by his or her peers to deliver the prayer
Can the school district substitute a student for a local clergy person?
No. Neither is acceptable. Schools may not arrange to allow prayer at an event. Student prayer
is limited to prayer that is personal, voluntary and non-disruptive. So long as the prayer is sanctioned
by the district, at an official event using the school's loudspeaker and podium, such prayer