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School Prayer Essay

In simple terms, prayer is talking to God or a god. During that conversation, the person praying may use his or her own words or, “a set order of words,” such as the Lord’s Prayer to speak to God, may “request or wish” something from a God. The conversation may be vocal or silent. Questions involving school prayer are among the most argumentative questions posed to the courts. This has been the case decades ago and still occurring today. The history of prayer in the public education system is a story of legal rendering.

The relationship between religion and government in the United States is governed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, which both prevents the government from establishing religion and protects privately initiated religious expression and activities from government discrimination. The First Amendment establishes certain limits on the conduct of public school officials as it relates to religious activity, including prayer.

The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, [known as the Establishment Clause], or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [known as the Free Exercise Clause],” (U. S. Constitution) When deciding a case, the court has to balance between favoring a religion and prohibiting it. Landmark Case: Engle vs. Vitale The Supreme Court has many times held that the First Amendment requires public school leaders to be neutral in their treatment of religion. This means not showing favoritism toward any religion but yet not showing any hostile expression towards any religious doings, such as prayer. One of the most famous court cases involving religion and public schools happened in a New York City school district in the 1950s.

Each morning before classes started, students would say a twenty-two word prayer that was created by the school board. Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country. A few parents objected, saying that this school promoted prayer violated the First Amendment. The New York Supreme Court ruled against the parents, who was represented by Stephen Engle. After taking their claim to a higher court numerous times, the court case Engle v.

Vitale (1962), finally made it to the Supreme Court. In 1962 the Supreme Court Judges voted, the vote was 6 to 1, deciding that the twenty-two word prayer was unconstitutional. It was decided that the prayer, “singled out a particular religious practice… contradicting the Establishment Clause of the First Amendement. ” (Haas 48) This landmark case is one of the significant case laws used in order to determine neutrality in questions of school prayer.

It was decided that teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities. Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 (1962) Violation of the Establishment Clause: Sante Fe v. Doe While school leaders may not lead their students in prayer, according to 105 ILCS 20/5, Students do have the right to pray at school. They must respect the schools policies, regulations, and rules that are in place regarding any disruption to the educational system.

This being said, “students may read their Bibles during study hall or other non-structured time, may say grace, and may discuss religion with their peers during non-directed free time, such as time spent on the playground, on a school bus, in the hallways, or in the cafeteria. ” (Braun 184) This student right and Illinois compiled statute was tested in the case of Sante Fe Independent School District v. Doe. Santa Fe v. Doe centered on the Santa Fe Independent School District policy allowing student-led prayer before football games.

Santa Fe Independent School District had a history of student-led prayer. The students were elected by their peers to lead prayer at a school event. An Appellate Court ruling found that the district’s policy was unconstitutional in accordance with the Establishment Clause. The Court stated that the policy was not only an actual endorsement of prayer, but also a perceived endorsement, and, therefore, sent a message to nonbelievers that they were outsiders and that believers were the favored group in the community If the prayer is student lead, driven, and initiated it does not go against the constitution.

The Supreme Court ruled saying, “The delivery of such a message, over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of the school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer – is not properly characterized as private speech” (Santa Fe v. Doe, 2000). Moment of Silence for Prayer: Wallace v. Jaffrey? So far a few things have been decided. The first is that any school-sponsored religious practice is prohibited because it is in violation of the Establishment Clause.

The second thing is that students do have a right to freely exercise their personal religious practices as long as they do it during non-structured times; but where does the law stand on moments of silence that schools use for personal prayer times? After court cases such as Engle vs. Vitale it was obvious that religion in schools was diminishing. To counter back at these Supreme Court rulings many states started establishing moments of silence at the beginning of each school day as a substitute for the vocal prayer that had been taken away. These moments of silence are permissible as long as they are done for a secular purpose.

Wallace v. Jaffrey is the only case that the Supreme Court has heard on a moment of silence in schools. The case contested an Alabama law that established a moment of silence for the purpose of “meditation or voluntary prayer” (Wallace v. Jaffrey, 1985). The court found that the statue was unconstitutional because it was enacted solely for the purpose of promoting religion in schools. The majority opinion found that any statute establishing a moment of silence that included the word “prayer” was unconstitutional.

1985 the Supreme Court concluded that Alabama’s silent meditation and prayer statute violated the Establishment Clause. Alexander 217) Explaining how this ruling came to be, an understanding of how our courts can make such a decision is needed first. The Establishment Clause Tests: The Supreme Court uses three tests to determine violations of the Establishment Clause. The tests may be considered singularly or together to determine constitutionality. The court has repeatedly stressed that the Constitution prohibits public schools from teaching children in religion. But it is not always easy to determine exactly what constitutes teaching or school sponsorship of religious acts.

To help explain the establishment clause, which is often a question in issues of school prayer, the court uses several tests. The three main tests include the Lemon, coercion, and endorsement test. Lemon Test: The Lemon test gets its name from the 1973 decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, in which the Court struck down a state program that was giving aid to religious elementary and secondary schools. The Lemon test is a three prong test, each part being just as important as the other two. Using the Lemon test, a court must first determine whether the law or government action in question has a secular purpose.

This prong is based on the idea that government should only concern itself in civil matters, leaving religion to the conscience of the individual. Second, a court would ask whether the state action has the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. Finally, the court would consider whether the action excessively entangles religion and government. While religion and government must interact at some points while co-existing in society, the concern here is that they do not so overlap and intertwine that people have difficulty differentiating between the two.

Although this test has come under fire from certain Supreme Court Justices, it has never been over turned, and it is still used to guide decisions in courts today. Coercion Test: Some justices propose allowing more government support for religion than the Lemon test allows, their support stands with the coercion test. Justice Kennedy created the coercion test in Lee v. Weisman. The coercion test is used to determine whether or not the government coerced participation in the religious activity. In regard to public schools, it is used to determine whether or not students experienced a coercive effect.

Based on the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 the religious practice is examined to see to what extent, if any, pressure is applied to force or “coerce” individuals to participate. The Court has defined that the government does not violate the establishment clause unless it, (1) provides direct aid to religion in a way that would tend to establish a state church, or (2) coerces people to support or participate in religion against their will. Even the coercion test is subject to varying interpretations.

This was evident and illustrated in Lee v. Weisman. Endorsement Test: The third test that was proposed by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the endorsement test. It was used in the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly, asking whether a particular government action amounts to an endorsement of religion, thus violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It’s with this test that a government action is invalid if it creates a perception in the mind of a reasonable observer that a religion is being endorsed or disapproved. The endorsement test has been included into the Lemon test.

While the endorsement test has been applied in many cases, it has not produced a conclusive answer to the question of constitutionality in all cases. There is a forth test that is sometimes used in establishment-clause decisions, it is the neutrality test. While the Lemon, coercion, and endorsement test are used in matters of expression the neutrality test is mainly used in issues dealing with funding. Making sure the government is giving neutral aid to public and religious schools with no religious promotion. Because of its dealings and ruling in funding matters, the neutrality test is not often used in issues of prayer in public schools.

The Wallace case is legally significant for representing the value of neutrality underlying the Establishment Clause. It also showed the significance for the Lemon test as the main test for evaluating the constitutionality of public school involvement in religion. The Court in Wallace showed its position that the Establishment Clause “‘requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers. ’” (Lofaso 30) The Court then concluded that Alabama’s moment-of-silence statute violated the Establishment Clause because it failed the purpose prong of the Lemon test: “The legislature enacted . . for the sole purpose of expressing the State’s endorsement of prayer activities for one minute at the beginning of each school day.

Does Location of the Prayer Matter? It was almost a half-century ago that the Supreme Court in Engle v. Vitale established that daily prayer in the classroom is unconstitutional. Since then, this thought has grown due to cases where location of the prayer have been put into question. Now the Supreme Court extends their thinking to include, “any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity.

The Supreme Court continued to keep watch even when school prayer moved outside the classroom to a graduation ceremony. In Lee v. Weisman, principals at public schools in Providence, Rhode Island invited clergy to speak at graduations. The principals provided the clergy with guidelines, which essentially boiled down to keeping the prayers nonsectarian. When Principal Lee invited a rabbi to give a prayer at Nathan Bishop Middle School’s graduation, Deborah Weisman and her parents objected. When the Weismans alleged a violation of the Establishment Clause, the school board argued that an event as significant as graduation warranted prayer.

The lower courts agreed with the Weismans and the Supreme Court affirmed. The school board argued that graduation was a voluntary event. The Court dismissed this argument, finding graduation to be an important event in a student’s life that must not be forfeited due to different religious beliefs and that the government must not get involved. In 1992 the Court decided that it was unconstitutional for a member of the clergy to deliver an invocation or benediction at a public school graduation, and that in doing so, the school endorsed religion and required students who were non-believers to accept the religious practices.

Conclusion: Supreme Court decisions provide insight into the debate against school prayer. Because of the various Court rulings on the school prayer issue, we do have a foundation to base other decisions off of when issues arise with mixing church and state in the public educational system. Students today can not be forced to recite any prayer that has been endorsed by the school, but they may practice a moment of silence during the school day as long as they are not required to use that time for prayer. Students are also free to exercise their religious beliefs.

They may read their Bibles during non structured time and pray as long as they are following the rules and regulations regarding school disruption. If at any time the state gets involved, or the activities become school-sponsored then the religious acts are unconstitutional and violate the First Amendment. It is important to remember that the United States exists today because the founders sought to live in a country free from government interference, especially concerning religion. Individuals are free to exercise their beliefs as long as they are not forcing those beliefs unto others.

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