Can public schools endorse or encourage prayer if they do so in the context of endorsing and encouraging "silent meditation" as well? Some Christians thought this would be a good way to smuggle official prayers back into the school day, but courts rejected their arguments and the Supreme Court found the practice unconstitutional. According to the court, such laws have a religious rather than a secular purpose, though all the justices had different opinions as to why exactly the law was invalid.
At issue was an Alabama law requiring that each school day begin with a one minute period of "silent meditation or voluntary prayer" (the original 1978 law read only "silent meditation," but the words "or voluntary prayer" were added in 1981).
A student's parent sued alleging that this law violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it forced students to pray and basically exposed them to religious indoctrination. The District Court permitted the prayers to continue, but the Court of Appeals ruled that they were unconstitutional, so the state appealed to the Supreme Court.
With Justice Stevens writing the majority opinion, the Court decided 6-3 that the Alabama law providing for a moment of silence was unconstitutional.
The important issue was whether the law was instituted for a religious purpose. Because the only evidence in the record indicated that the words "or prayer" had been added to the existing statute by amendment for the sole purpose of returning voluntary prayer to the public schools, the Court found that the first prong of the Lemon Test had been violated, i.e., that the statute was invalid as being entirely motivated by a purpose of advancing religion.
In Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion, she refined the "endorsement" test which she first described in Lynch v. Donnelly:
The endorsement test does not preclude government from acknowledging religion or from taking religion into account in making law and policy. It does preclude government from conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred. Such an endorsement infringes the religious liberty of the nonadherent, for "[w]hen the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain."
At issue today is whether state moment of silence statutes in general, and Alabama's moment of silence statute in particular, embody an impermissible endorsement of prayer in public schools. [emphasis added]
This fact was clear because Alabama already had a law that allowed school days to begin with a moment for silent meditation. The newer law was expanded the existing law by giving it a religious purpose. The Court characterized this legislative attempt to return prayer to the public schools as "quite different from merely protecting every student's right to engage in voluntary prayer during an appropriate moment of silence during the schoolday."
This decision emphasized the scrutiny the Supreme Court uses when evaluating the constitutionality of government actions. Rather than accept the argument that the inclusion of "or voluntary prayer" was a minor addition with little practical significance, the intentions of the legislature that passed it was enough to demonstrate its unconstitutionality.
One important aspect to this case is that the authors of the majority opinion, two concurring opinions and all three dissents agreed that a minute of silence at the beginning of each school day would be acceptable.
Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion is notable for its effort to synthesize and refine the Court's Establishment and Free Exercise tests (see also the Justice's concurring opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly). It was here that she first articulated her "reasonable observer" test:
The relevant issue is whether an objective observer, acquainted with the text, legislative history, and implementation of the statute, would perceive it is a state endorsement...
Also notable is Justice Rehnquist's dissent for its effort to redirect Establishment Clause analysis by abandoning the tripartite test, discarding any requirement that government be neutral between religion and "irreligion," and confining the scope to a prohibition on establishing a national church or otherwise favoring one religious group over another. Many conservative Christians today insist that the First Amendment only prohibits the establishment of a national church and Rehnquist clearly bought into that propaganda, but the rest of the court disagreed.