School prayer is an issue on which liberals and conservatives often disagree. The First Amendment bars the government from establishing a state religion and prohibits the government from inhibiting the free exercise of religion by individuals. Thus, the government is barred from breaching the “wall of separation” between church and state, so that religious liberty may find full expression. Yet is the wall breached if individuals wish to express their religious beliefs in schools? At first glance, the answer would appear to be yes. In the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court barred government-organized prayer. Since then, proponents of allowing prayer in schools have marshaled much support for a more flexible approach, arguing in part that courts have misunderstood the framers’ intent. Proponents have also pushed for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of religious expression in public schools.
Proponents of allowing prayer in school argue that the authors of the Constitution were pious men not out to drive religion from schools or other aspects of public life. Every Congress since the first founding has opened its daily session with a prayer. Supreme Court sessions begin with the words “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.” By shunning religious expression at a time when children seem increasingly in need of moral and spiritual guidance, schools are now sending the wrong message to the nation’s children. Moreover, the absence of religion in school implicitly encourages a belief system: secularism.
School prayer need not be led by teachers or administrators, nor need it be required. Voluntary prayer led by students would pose no threat to the First Amendment. Instead, it would reflect the proper extension of religious liberty into schools. In short, an enlightened approach to school prayer requires neither a government stamp of approval nor any form of coercion.
Opponents of school prayer argue that both the First Amendment and American respect for individual freedom require schools to avoid any role in religious teaching, instruction, or prayer. They generally oppose even student-run religious activities associated with school functions. For example, groups opposed to school prayer applauded the Supreme Court’s decision in Doe v. Santa Fe Independent School District (2000). In this case the Court ruled that allowing students to read prayers over the public-school address system during football games violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Government meddling in religion drove many European settlers to America, and the Founders understood that keeping government out of religious matters was not an expression of hostility to religion but rather a simple acknowledgment that both government and religion are best off operating separately.
Opponents of school prayer point out that although most Americans hold religious beliefs of some form, the range of these beliefs is wide and growing, meaning that any religious teaching or prayer is bound to offend the sensibilities of some other religious group. Moreover, the rights of nonbelievers are equal to those of believers. School actions that ostracize, penalize, or stigmatize nonbelievers violate their right to equal treatment and their right not to be subjected to religious teachings in public or secular institutions.