As a social problem, the term school prayer refers to the controversy surrounding the presence or absence of religious practices in U.S. public schools. The debate over the appropriateness of prayer in public schools stems from the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clause is commonly interpreted to mean that U.S. society should feature a “separation of church and state,” though this term does not appear in the Constitution and was coined later by Thomas Jefferson in his private correspondence. The inclusion of the establishment clause in the Constitution ensured religious freedom, in contrast to the persecution suffered by immigrants from England in their native country.
The U.S. Supreme Court has grappled with this issue repeatedly in recent decades. In 1963, the landmark case of Abington Township v. Schempp disallowed the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible in public school classrooms. The case established the “secular purpose” and “primary effect” tests to determine whether a particular public school practice is compatible with the establishment clause. To be in accordance with the Constitution, a law or practice must be clear in its secular purpose and not promote or inhibit a particular religion. In the 1985 Wallace v. Jaffree case, the Court struck down the Alabama statute setting for students a daily period of silence for private prayer. Though conceding that a moment of silence for voluntary prayer is not itself unconstitutional, the Court ruled that this particular statute existed for the sole purpose of advancing religion and was therefore unconstitutional. In 1992, the Court barred prayers at public school graduation ceremonies, and in 2000 the Court struck down student-led prayers prior to school athletic events. The most recent school prayer controversy surrounds the Pledge of Allegiance and the inclusion of the phrase “under God” therein.
Despite these rulings, 58 percent of U.S. teenagers favor the presence of a spoken nondenominational prayer in school, and 84 percent support a moment of silence for voluntary prayer or meditation. Nearly half of U.S. teenagers (44 percent) support the presence of prayers that specifically mention Jesus Christ. Adults are less tolerant of these practices: 53 percent of the general public supports a moment of silence, about 20 percent favors a nondenominational prayer that mentions God, and only 6 percent advocates prayers that mention Jesus Christ. Nearly 1 in 5 adults believes that schools should avoid all types of prayer entirely, including the moment of silence. Interestingly, the main objection to school prayer is not the separation of church and state that concerns the Supreme Court, but rather the more emotional view that school prayer embarrasses and isolates students whose religion is different or who belong to no religion.
- Gallup Organization. 2005. “School Prayer: Teen Support Hinges on Type.” Washington, DC: Gallup Organization. Retrieved March 26, 2017 (http://www.gallup.com/poll/17494/school-prayer-teen-support-hinges-type.aspx).
- Murray, K. T. and C. S. Evans. 2000. “U.S. Supreme Court Revisits School Prayer.” NASSP Bulletin 84:73-82.
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