Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prayer in School

A dear friend, a life-long Utahn, whom I respect greatly, recently expressed a concern about the way local society has changed in the last few decades. She said something like this:
Life was so much safer here in the past, it was idyllic. And now, in this world full of evil, we can't even have prayer in schools.
This was not the first time I'd heard a Utahn speak passionately about the change Utah has undertaken in the past few decades. This change has come, in part, because of Utah's fast-growing population. I've also heard many Utahns express the fear that "minorities are taking over" in a way that suggests the freedom of the mainstream is diminished.

Before responding to my friend, I was carried away in a daydream. Students, circled 'round a flagpole before the facade of a three-story 1930s school building. They were holding hands, their heads bowed in prayer.

This was not a contrived, nostalgic image of the past, it was a memory, a real scene I recalled from my own high school days. In the late '90s, I attended Leon High School in Tallahassee, FL. Although the dominant religion in the community was, and still is Southern Baptist, I knew kids at school who were of various Protestant Christian denominations,  as well as Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and those not associated with a religion. I assume there may have been other religious groups I was unaware of.  Students sometimes met together to pray or discuss religion. In addition to the group I participated in (the early morning seminary program organized by the LDS Church), I knew of other bible study groups, and a club called The Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And then there was the group in my daydream. Anyone could join them in the prayer circle at the flag pole, and yet, students who did not share their beliefs were not offended by what they were doing.

I skipped to a second school memory. We were in the large music room. A choir mate had suffered death that weekend in a car accident. We cried together and a teacher called for "a moment of silence." Many eyes were closed in prayer.

Both my choir teachers were involved in music production at their respective Protestant Churches. Why had they asked for a moment of silence allowing for prayer, rather than simply having a group prayer? I had a few friends in choir who were Jewish. Had the teacher chosen to say a prayer (in the Christian manner of praying) my Jewish friends may have felt excluded.

Let's return to the text of the First Amendment
Here's the part that relates to religious freedom:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
The important thing here is the separation of church and state. No law respecting an establishment of religion. So, religious freedom as granted by the first amendment doesn't just mean the right of people to choose their religion, it means the government should not establish an official religion, and has been interpreted (rightfully, I believe) to mean that the government should not endorse religions.

For persons of privilege, and/or belonging to a majority: 

Being truly humane and understanding human rights is often about considering how you would feel if you happened to be a minority. Here's an interesting example of a couple of Christian groups who fought to keep formal prayer out of school, because in their community, they happened to be minorities:
Proponents of school-sponsored prayer are largely, but not exclusively, Christians of various denominations; however, some major Christian denominations are opposed to the practice. Many of the key cases against government-sponsored school prayer have been filed by Christians in regions of the country where they are a minority, such as the Catholic and Mormon Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe in the overwhelmingly Southern Baptist families who filed in Texas Gulf Coast. (Wikipedia)
So, what about these scenarios?

Prayer led by the teacher in the classroom,
Prayer at a graduation ceremony,
Prayer over the intercom
Prayer encouraged by the coach in the locker room before a school sporting event

These types of prayer are considered unconstitutional, not because minorities are out to get the mainstream, and not just because it might make someone feel excluded. They're considered unconstitutional because the formality of this kind of prayer implies that the school endorses a specific religion. A public school should not endorse a specific religion, because public schools represent the government.

The Good News

Prayer in school is constitutional. Students may initiate personal prayers, or group prayers as long as they do not take place in a formal school situation, such as the scenarios I mentioned above. I witnessed many student-initiated prayers in my own high school. In fact, a school must not prevent students from private prayers or religious discussions as long as they do not disrupt a classroom and do not coerce or infringe on the rights of other students. The most important principle is that prayers not be initiated by persons who represent the authority of the school (teachers, coaches, administrators, etc.)

I've copied below the text of a detailed resource explaining what types of school prayer are not constitutional. There is only one thought I would add to it, and that is, where it mentions that requiring a moment of silence is considered unconstitutional, it fails to mention that providing a moment of silence is okay.
Religion in the Public Schools RULE
Prayer in Public School

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 unconstitutional.

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 (1992).

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

Sample Scenarios:
    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 instead. 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 is prohibited.

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