Students are not allowed to pray in public school.
That's right, students should be allowed to pray in school - and they are! Some people act and argue as though students were not permitted to pray in school, but there is no truth to this. At best, they are confusing the difference between official, state-sponsored, state-mandated prayers led by school officials and personal, private prayers initiated and said by the student. At worst, people are being deliberately deceitful in their claims.
The Supreme Court has never held that students cannot pray in school. Instead, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot have anything to do with prayer in schools. The government cannot tell students when to pray. The government cannot tell students what to pray. The government cannot tell students that they should pray. The government cannot tell students that prayer is better than no prayer.
This allows students a great deal of freedom — far more freedom than they had in the "good old days" which so many religious conservative seem to want America to return to. Why? Because students can decide to pray if they want to, when to pray if they do, and they can decide upon the actual content of their prayers. It is inconsistent with religious liberty for the government to make such decisions for others, especially other people's children.
It is ironic that critics of these decisions have tried to argue that judges should not be able to say "when and where" kids should pray when just the opposite of what has happened: judges have ruled that only the students should be able to decide when, where and how they will pray. The laws struck down are ones which have had the government dictating these matters to the students — and these are the decisions which religious conservatives decry.
Schools & Nonsectarian Prayers
One common buzzword has been "nonsectarian" prayers. Some people try to argue that it is acceptable for the government to promote, endorse and lead prayers with public school students so long as those prayers are "nonsectarian." Unfortunately, the exact nature of what people mean by "nonsectarian" is very vague. Often it seems to mean only the removal of references to Jesus, thus allowing the prayer to be inclusive for both Christians and Jews - and, perhaps, Muslims.
Such a prayer will not, however, be "inclusive" for members of non-biblical religious traditions. It will not be helpful for Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Shintos, for example. And no prayers can be "inclusive" for nonbelievers who have nothing to pray to. Prayers must have content and they must have direction. Thus, the only truly "nonsectarian" prayer is one which is no prayer at all - which is the situation we have now, with no prayers which are promoted, endorsed or led by the government.
Restrictions on School Prayer
It is true, unfortunately, that there have been a few overly zealous school administrators who have gone too far and tried to do more than the courts have authorized. Yet these have been mistakes - and when challenged, the courts have found that students' religious liberties must be preserved. This does not mean, however, that there are no restrictions on the manner and timing of prayers.
Students cannot jump up in the middle of class and start chanting as part of a prayer. Students cannot suddenly insert prayers into some other activity, like speech in class. Students can pray quietly and silently any time, but if they want to do more, then they cannot do it in a way which disrupts other students or classes, because the purpose of schools is to teach.
So, while there are a few small and reasonable restrictions on the manner in which students can go about exercising their religious freedoms, the fact remains that they do have significant religious freedoms in our public schools. They can pray on their own, they can pray in groups, they can pray silently, and they can pray out loud. Yes, they can indeed pray in schools.