School prayer

Prayers and Bible readings sanctioned by school officials were efforts to promote religious beliefs and values in students in public educational institutions.

In 1962 the Supreme Court issued one of its most controversial decisions in Engel v. Vitale[case]Engel v. Vitale[Engel v. Vitale]. At issue was a nondenominational prayer composed by the regents of the state of New York that was to be recited in public school classrooms by teachers on a voluntary basis. It read: “Almighty God we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.” Justice Hugo L. Black, writing the opinion for the Court, noted that the apparatus of the public school system was employed in the promotion of religion and thus resulted in a violation of the establishment clause. A year later, the Court struck down a state-mandated practice of reading passages from the Bible without commentary in Abington School District v. Schempp[case]Abington School District v. Schempp[Abington School District v. Schempp]. In his opinion, Justice Tom C. Clark applied the same “strict separation” analysis.Church and state, separation of

After the Supreme Court banned school prayer, teachers found other ways to start the school day.

(Library of Congress)

In its decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman[case]Lemon v. Kurtzman[Lemon v. Kurtzman] (1971), the Court developed the establishment clause test that remains in use and is applied in church-state cases. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote, “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster ’an excessive government entanglement with religion.’” The first element of this three-prong test was invoked in Wallace v. Jaffree[case]Wallace v. Jaffree[Wallace v. Jaffree] (1985) when the Court ruled unconstitutional an Alabama law requiring a daily moment of silence for prayer or meditation in public schools. The Lemon test was reaffirmed in Lee v. Weisman[case]Lee v. Weisman[Lee v. Weisman] (1992), when the Court struck down Providence, Rhode Island, public school principals’ use of members of the clergy to offer invocation and benediction prayers as part of the formal graduation ceremonies for middle and high schools.

In its efforts to define and apply the establishment clause, the Court developed several perspectives on how best to ensure that government refrain from endorsing a particular faith while at the same time protecting the religious freedom of liberty and conscience. The result often was a confusing line of precedents that offered no distinct or enduring first principles that work in all situations. Despite continuing and heavy criticism levied against the Court, however, its separationist stance on government-supported religion in public schools has remained firm.

Abington School District v. Schempp

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Engel v. Vitale

Lee v. Weisman

Lemon v. Kurtzman

Released time

Religion, establishment of

Wallace v. Jaffree