Study Guide

Church and State - School Prayer

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School Prayer

  • Since 1962, courts have consistently judged organized prayer in schools to be a violation of the Establishment Clause

For decades, lawmakers and the courts generally ignored the existence of prayer in public schools. But in 1962, in Engle v. Vitale, the Court confronted the issue and ruled that the generic invocation of "almighty god" in New York’s schools violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The following year, the Court similarly decided that the daily reading of scripture in public schools—even if it was, as its defenders claimed, for the purpose of "moral" rather than "religious" instruction—was unconstitutional (Abington v. Schempp). In 1985, the Court ruled that Alabama’s moment of silence for "meditation or prayer" was a thinly veiled attempt to sneak prayer into the classroom (Wallace v. Jaffree). And in 2000, the Court concluded that New Mexico’s practice of permitting mass public prayer before football games, even if voted upon by a majority of the students, was a violation of the establishment clause and a form of state sanctioned religious coercion that violated the rights of the dissenting students (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe).

In summary, we can detect a certain general direction within the Court’s response: increased tolerance for state assistance to religious schools, coupled with increased resistance to religious encroachment on the curriculum and practices within public schools. These seemingly divergent tendencies are further reflected in two of the more controversial church-state questions currently confronting education: the use of vouchers and tax credits by some states to subsidize religious school expenses, and the teaching of creationism as "science."

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