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  • Is School Led Prayer in Public Schools Appropriate?

    A great number of issues involving religion have arisen in the educational context. Perhaps no aspect of the church-state controversy provokes more debate than the subject of school led prayer in public schools. Particularly with the 2012 Presidential Election drawing near, there has been an increased political focus on school led prayer by various presidential candidates. Thus, the reemerging question facing schools today is should educators and school officials be permitted to lead students in prayer in public schools?

    School led prayer was removed from the U.S. public education system through a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases over the past few decades.  In Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962), the Supreme Court firmly established that educators and school officials cannot lead students in prayer or force students to pray a certain way. However, all students still retain the right to pray voluntarily before, during, or after school as long as they are not disruptive. While school led prayer in public school classrooms has been banned by the Supreme Court, the individual “religious rights of students and their right to freedom of conscience do not stop at the schoolhouse door.” Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).

    Advocates of school led prayer argue that the Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale has resulted in a massive denigration in our culture’s ethics and that by reintroducing prayer in the classroom, the decline of “American moral values” will hopefully cease. Some, like former Secretary of Education William Bennett, argue that everything from low SAT scores to high teenage pregnancy rates can be traced to the court’s ruling in Engel v. Vitale, where the Supreme Court arguably “took God out of the classroom.” Advocates further argue that school prayer was a part of student life for centuries and that tradition should be restored and continued into the future.

    Opponents of formal prayer argue that the essential wall between separation of church and state would be breached if school officials were allowed to lead prayer in public school classrooms. Some believe the return of school led prayer would marginalize religious minorities by implying that one type of religion is state supported, and thus, that all other religions are worthless and not accepted in society. These opponents further argue that school endorsed prayer can have dangerous consequences, including an increase in harassment or bullying of religious minorities and an increase in exclusion and ostracization of certain students. Opponents also note that individual students are still free to voluntarily recite prayer in school as long as their actions are not disruptive and therefore, advocates whom are in favor of school led prayer are incorrect in thinking that “God has completely been taken out of classroom.”

    Since the 1962 Supreme Court decision in Engel v. Vitale, confusion and controversy have existed over the issue of prayer and religious expression in public schools. If your institution has questions or concerns about this topic and you would like further information, please email Jim Ryan at jryan@cullenanddykman.com or call him at (516) 357 – 3750. **A special thanks to Hayley Dryer, a third-year law student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, for helping with this post.