Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Refers to the current public policy issue in the United States on whether children should be allowed to engage in organized prayer in public schools. Proponents argue that it is a beneficial affirmation of religious values, consistent with our nation's heritage, while opponents say that it is a hollow ritual that offends the rights and sensibilities of children from minority religions or from no religion at all.

The issue of prayer in schools was catapulted onto the national agenda when the Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale (370 U.S. 421, 1962) that the State of New York's provision for a voluntary, nonsectarian prayer led by school officials violated the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment. The prayer read: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country." The Supreme Court stated that its voluntary and nondenominational aspects did not "free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause" because the government was placing its power and moral authority behind "a particular religious belief."

The school prayer decision spearheaded opposition to the Supreme Court in the 1960s (Grossman and Wells 1980) and became an object of legislative attempts to overturn it. Many members of Congress introduced constitutional amendments over the years to overturn the decision directly; the high-water mark of those efforts came in 1984, when the U.S. Senate defeated an amendment drafted by the Reagan administration to overturn Engel on a 56-44 vote, 11 votes short of the required two-thirds margin for passage (Moen 1989).

Legislators tried other tactics to reinstitute prayer in schools. They introduced measures restricting the ability of the courts to hear school prayer cases; those "court stripping" bills never gained much support, however, because they tried to restrict the constitutional jurisdiction of the Supreme Court by statute. Legislators fared better with "equal access" legislation, which guaranteed student religious groups access to secondary public school facilities on the same basis as other voluntary student groups (Hertzke 1988). Congress passed the "equal access" bill in the 98th Congress (1983-1984), and the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990). It allows voluntary student religious groups to engage in religious activities after the school day is over, such as vocal prayer, if other voluntary student groups also are allowed to use the school's facilities.

An additional permutation of prayer in schools has met with failure. Proponents have advocated a "moment of silence" at the start of the school day, during which time students could pray silently if they wished. That practice was ruled an unconstitutional establishment of religion by the Supreme Court in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), which judged it an attempt to reinstitute formal prayer in schools.

In recent years, proponents have placed greater emphasis on the rights of students to pray so long as they initiate it (thereby undercutting the issue of state endorsement). In the meantime, the constitutional prohibition against prayer in schools is often cited as one of the more often violated Supreme Court rulings. The school prayer issue has resonated strongly as a symbolic affirmation of tradition and religiosity, especially among conservative Protestants.

Social scientists traditionally have studied the reasoning of the Supreme Court's prayer decisions, the symbolic importance of the issue to religious conservatives, and the degree of congruence between public opinion and elite action on this issue. Prayer in schools remains a topic of discussion, but its saliency has been decreasing over time.

Matthew C. Moen and Julie Ingersoll


K. M. Dolbeare and P. E. Hammond, The School Prayer Decisions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971)

J. B. Grossman and R. S. Wells, Constitutional Law and Judicial Policymaking (New York: Wiley, 1980)

A. D. Hertzke, Representing God in Washington (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988)

M. C. Moen, The Christian Right and Congress (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989).

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