10 Reasons Why “Student-Initiated,” “Student-Led” School Prayer Is Wrong! (May 1994)

1. Courts Have Barred School Prayers For 30 Years

School prayers in public schools have been held by the United States Supreme Court to be a violation of the Establishment Clause of the first Amendment for more than three decades. In 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, the Court struck down a “denominationally neutral” prayer for students. The following year, in Abington School District v. Schempp, the Court again invalidated government-sponsored prayer, as well as bible reading in public schools.

2. Commencement Prayers Are Also Unconstitutional

In 1992, the Court ruled in Lee v. Weisman that prayers at public school commencement ceremonies are an impermissible establishment of religion: “No holding by this Court suggests that a school can persuade or compel a student to participate in religious exercise.” Although the facts in the Weisman case centered on the most common type of commencement prayer abuse–led by a clergyman at the invitation of school officials–the language is sweeping:

“It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which ‘establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so,’ ” Kennedy wrote for the Court majority.

3. “Student-Initiated” Is A Ruse

Conservative Christian legal groups such as the Rutherford Institute, and the American Center for Law and Justice run by televangelist Pat Robertson, are attempting to bully and intimidate school officials around the country into circumventing Weisman by imposing prayer-by-majority-vote upon a captive audience. Making graduating classes vote about whether to pray at graduation is a flagrant and insensitive abuse of school authority.

4. Student-Led Prayers Coercive

Students should not be proselytized and prayed at from the commencement podium, whether the prayer is imposed by a minister, a principal, or a peer. Religious coercion is even worse at the hands of another student, pitting students in the majority against students in the minority, treating them as outsiders, with school complicity.

5. The Purpose Of Public Schools Is Secular

Prayers have no secular purpose. Public schools are meant to be inclusive, not exclusive, to instruct, not evangelize. Graduation ceremonies are the culmination of 13 years of secular education. Imposing prayer, whether by another student or by a minister, is a misuse of the school system and its captive audience.

6. Religion Doesn’t Belong In Public Schools

The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that religion does not belong in public schools. McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948, struck down religious instruction in public schools. Epperson v. Arkansas, 1968, struck down a law forbidding the teaching of evolution. Stone v. Graham, 1980, ruled that the posting of the Ten Commandments in public classrooms is unconstitutional. Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985, struck down a law authorizing a daily “period of silence . . . for meditation or daily prayer.” Three other cases which the Court chose to affirm by not taking on appeal are also significant: Tudor v. Board of Education of Rutherford (1953), cert. denied (1954). Appeals court ruled the practice of distributing Gideon Bibles at New Jersey public schools illegal. Berger v. Rensselaer Schools, 1993, cert. denied 1993. Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals forbade distribution of Gideon bibles in Indiana public schools. Douglas Co. School District v. Jager (1989). Appeals court ruled pregame invocations at Georgia high schools unconstitutional.

7. Student-Led Prayers Won’t Pass Constitutional Muster

Special interest groups interested in proselytizing through the schools cite the Clear Creek Court of the Appeals decision for the 5th Circuit, okaying student-led and initiated “nonsectarian, nonproselytizing” prayers. (Whoever heard of a “nonproselytizing” prayer!) The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal last year, thereby letting the decision stand for Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Clear Creek would turn the Bill of Rights on its head. One cannot put liberties protected by our Bill of Rights up to the vote of school children! What is next on Pat Robertson’s agenda? Making kindergarteners vote whether to pray before their milk and cookies?

If it were permissible to overturn state/church separation because a majority of school students vote to pray, then what would make it wrong for students to vote to segregate schools, or to otherwise violate the civil liberties of any minorities?

8. Supreme Court Composition Is Against School Prayer

A head count of the changing Supreme Court shows that under the Clinton Administration, a clear majority of the Court will continue to hold school prayer unconstitutional. With Clear Creek creating temporary constitutional bedlam, sparking many new lawsuits challenging Clear Creek, it will not be long before the Supreme Court officially addresses the constitutionality of “student-initiated” prayers. In the meantime, public schools officials must exercise caution.

9. Recent Lower Court Rulings Oppose Prayer

The most recent federal court rulings on the question of “student-initiated” or “student-led” prayer have barred them. On March 30, 1994, U.S. District Judge Joseph E. Irenas permanently barred two high schools in Camden County, New Jersey, “from conducting a school-sponsored graduation ceremony that includes a prayer, whether it be an invocation a benediction or a prayer in any other form.”

On December 22, 1993, U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan, Jr., banned student-initiated or clergy-led prayer at public school graduations, in a case out of Loudon County, Virginia. Judge Bryan’s clear decision explaining the constitutional harm of “student-initiated prayers” is excerpted below.

10. Schools Must Exercise Caution

While hot-headed, election-year politicians try to make political hay with the school prayer issue, it is up to school officials to exercise caution, and model for students a respect for the Constitution. Back in 1890, when the Supreme Court of Wisconsin stopped bible-reading in public schools (Weiss v. District Board), the Court wisely observed:

“There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter into our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation