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School Prayer

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Developments, laws, court rulings and government guidelines regarding prayer in public schools. The listings are coded with three different colors:

  • Court Rulings
  • Laws, Resolutions and other directives
  • Other Events

School Prayer
1948 The U.S. Supreme Court struck down religious instruction in public schools in their McCollum v. Board of Education decision.
1954 The Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling, Tudor v.  Board of Education against the distribution of Bibles by outside groups like the Gideons.
1962 The Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale disallowed a government-composed, nondenominational "Regents" prayer which was recited by students .
1963 In a number of major decisions (Murray v. Curlett; Abington Township School district v. Schempp) mandatory Bible verse recitation was ruled unconstitutional.
1984 The Federal Equal Access Act was passed, affecting all public secondary schools that received federal funds.

It required that religious clubs be permitted in public schools if other clubs which were also not related to the curriculum were already allowed. These religious groups had to be run by the students themselves, and could not be convened during class time. Membership in the group had to be voluntary.
July 12, 1995 School talk: President Bill Clinton gave a talk to James Madison High School in Vienna, VA. He said in part:
nothing in the 1st Amendment converts our public schools to religion-free zones or requires all religious expression to be left at the schoolhouse door.
August 10, 1995 Responding to a directive from the President, the federal Department of Education issued a memo to public school superintendents which discussed religious freedoms in schools.

Some principles stated were:
  • students can read religious books, say a prayer before meals and pray before tests, etc. to the same extent that they may engage in comparable secular non-disruptive activities
  • In informal settings (cafeterias, hallways, etc.) students may pray and may discuss religious topics with other students, just as they may talk about other subjects
  • Students can proselytize with other students; however they cannot engage in religiously motivated harassment
  • No student can be coerced into participating in any religious activity
  • Teachers and administrators cannot discourage or promote religious activity because of its religious content; this applies to anti-religious activity as well.
  • Schools can teach about religion and its role in society; they can teach about the Bible as literature. But they cannot provide religious instruction.
  • Students can distribute religious literature in the same way that they are permitted to distribute non-religious literature.
  • Students may be released to attend religious classes at other location; teachers and administrators cannot encourage or discourage students from taking advantage of such classes
  • Schools can teach about common civic values, but they must be neutral with respect to religion.
November 1995 An amendment to the US constitution was introduced to congress by Representative Ernest Istook (R-OK). It overruled the traditional separation of church and state by allowing organized school prayer in public schools.

His amendment had the support of the Christian Coalition and some other very conservative Christian groups, but it received major opposition from many other Christian groups who valued church-state separation.
November 1996 The U.S. Supreme Court elected to not review a decision by a Mississippi Federal court which had found a state school prayer law unconstitutional. The law in question had allowed students or teachers to conduct organized prayer sessions at school assemblies, sports events, over the intercom, or in school classrooms.
April 4, 1998 House bill HB19 in Alabama is passed as Act 98-381. It required that every public school classroom in the state begin each day with a
brief period of quiet reflection for not more than 60 seconds with the participation of each pupil in the classroom.


This same act also repealed Section 16-1-20.1, Code of Alabama 1975, relating to a period of silence for meditation in the public schools.
May 29, 19989 The U.S. Department of Education updated and re-issued the 1995 guidelines on religion in schools. Sections that dealt with student garb and religious excusals were revised to reflect the Supreme Court's finding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was unconstitutional.

Because that act was no longer in force, schools were now freer to decide whether students could wear religious garb such as yarmulkes and head scarves to class. Schools now could also allow or not allow students to be excused from classes that conflict with their religious beliefs.

Secretary Riley made three recommendations to local school boards and teachers:
  1. to recognize that in an increasingly diverse religious society that every school board should adopt a policy on religious expression
  2. to inform teachers early on about the role of religion in public schools through workshops and schools of education
  3. to actively inform parents about student's rights to religious expression as well as freedom of conscience.
June 4, 1998 The previously mentioned Istook constitutional amendment had passed through the committee stage, but did not receive the 2/3 majority vote which would have been needed in the House to allow it to proceed to the Senate.
February 1999 Darryl Redmond, a church pastor and the new head of the Detroit Board of Education, proposed that prayer rooms be established in all Detroit public schools. 

Board member Margaret Betts said that such rooms should be created
where a person can go and meditate or pray...The day we took prayer out of our school is the day we changed the personality of the whole environment... We've got to bring what's right back.


Chapels or special rooms were set aside for religious purposes to the bill required that public money be spent constructing and maintaining the rooms - a violation of the separation of church and state.
March 1999 In New Hampshire, House Bill 398 was sponsored by 8 state legislators to allow individual school districts to have students recite the Christian Lord's Prayer in school.

"194:15-a Lord's Prayer, Silent Individual Reflections and the Pledge of Allegiance in Public Elementary Schools. As a continuation of the policy of teaching our country's history and as an affirmation of the freedom of religion in this country, a school district may authorize the recitation of the traditional Lord's prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the flag in public elementary schools. In addition, a school district may authorize a period of time, after the recitation of the Lord's prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the flag, for silent reflections representative of a pupil's personal religious beliefs. Pupil participation in the recitation of the prayers and pledge of allegiance shall be voluntary. Pupils shall be reminded that the Lord's prayer is the prayer our pilgrim fathers recited when they came to this country in their search for freedom. Pupils shall be informed that these exercises are not meant to influence an individual's personal religious beliefs in any manner. The exercises shall be conducted so that pupils shall learn of our great freedoms, which freedoms include the freedom or religion and are symbolized by the recitation of the Lord's prayer and other silent religious reflections."
April 19, 1999 House Bill 1773 was passed by the Florida House Judiciary Committee to allow school districts to impose a brief opening or closing message, or both at all noncompulsory activities.

Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way commented:
There is nothing neutral about this bill. Students of minority faiths should not, and under our Constitution cannot, be forced to choose between missing a school activity or being held captive to the denominational prayers of a majority. This is an offensive and disturbing attack on the First Amendment.
February 1, 2000 The Virginia Senate voted 28 to 11 to approve a bill that required teachers to hold up to a minute of silence.

Part of the bill read:
At the commencement of the first class of each day in all grades in all public schools, the teacher in charge of the room in which such class is held shall announce that a period of silence, not to exceed one minute in duration, shall be observed for meditation, prayer or reflection; during any such period of meditation, prayer or reflection, silence shall be maintained, and no other activities shall be performed.



The bill's sponsor, Sen. Warren Barry (R) said that it was an effort to reduce violence in schools. The governor, James Gilmore (R) said that the moment of silence would not infringe on students' rights.
February 7, 1999 Judy Poag (D) proposed bill in the Georgia legislature requiring public school districts to display the Ten Commandments. Those who refused to do so would be penalized financially and perhaps even have their state funding cut off.

Another bill would permit "student-initiated spoken prayer during the school day."

Teachers would be prohibited from " Participating in or actively supervising such prayer." Under this bill, a student could evidently just interrupt class with a prayer and continue the disruption for hours while the teacher would be powerless to stop it.
February 14, 2000 According to the Houston Chronicle in Houston, Texas, there was a confrontation involving religious speech at a state sponsored school -- Stephen F. Austin State University. There were about 180 student groups at the university.

A new group, made up of Wiccan students applied for recognition in the Fall of 1999. Their certification was opposed by some Christians on campus. The final vote was 16 to 15 in favor of recognition.
...on Jan. 18, chalk drawings were placed around the University Center inviting students to Pagan meetings. A week and a half later, after the drawings had been scrubbed from the sidewalks, Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship hung its banner over the school entrance off North Street." It said: "This campus belongs to God...The Earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and all who live in it. (Psalms 24:1)
February 29, 2000 Ring Lardner Middle School in Michigan suspended science teacher Cheril Malinowski for three days after she loaned a Wiccan book to one of her students. The student was doing a report on herbal healing.

Loaning any religious book to a student was a violation of the principle of separation of church and state, because the loan implied school support for a specific religion.

The student involved loaned the book to second student. The parents of the latter student, the Wozniaks, had stolen the book and refused to return it. There were allegations that supporters of the teacher had issued threats against the Wozniak daughter and others. The Wozniaks alleged that the book contained information about "Satanic rituals, pentagrams, daggers for sacrifice and how to build an altar.'
March 3, 2000 A Kindergarten class in the Pajaro Valley School District was led by a teacher to sing a song during a forestry field trip. Students sat on the ground and sang,
Where I sit is holy. Holy is the ground. Forest, mountain, river--listen to the sound. Great spirits circle all around me...Ancient mother, I hear you calling... Ancient mother, I hear your laughter. Ancient mother, I taste your tears.


One child's parents filed suit against the school district after they were denied a public hearing on the prayer.
March 31, 2000 A Joint Resolution of the Kentucky General Assembly was passed, requiring public schools in the state to include lessons on Christian influences on America and calling for the display of the Ten Commandments in schools and on State Capitol grounds.

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