In recent years, there has been much confusion amongst the Christian community with regards to prayer in the public school system. Unhappy Christian families of all denominations have sought to fight the law that prevents prayer from being in public schools. But an important question arises that many people, myself included, have been curious about: can Christians pray in public schools?
Proper understanding of Christian rights in the public school system can and will help the teacher or student to walk out their faith boldly and courageously on a daily basis.
But an important question arises that many people, myself included, have been curious about: can Christians pray in public schools? Proper understanding of Christian rights in the public school system can and will help the teacher or student to walk out their faith boldly and courageously on a daily basis.
Can Christians pray in public schools?: Yes, Christians can pray in public schools. It is not prayer itself that is deemed unconstitutional in the public school system; rather, it is prayer or other religious activities conducted or facilitated in an official capacity by a staff member that violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Freedom of Religion and the Right to Pray
What exactly does the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment say, and what does this mean for Christians? For accuracy’s sake, let’s read the actual first amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
What this means is that the government is not allowed in any way to fund an establishment that either promotes or restricts a person’s religious or non-religious beliefs. Though in some respects it is a negative thing, it is also positive because the very same law gives Christians protection of religious freedom.
What This Looks Like for Students
Students have a lot of liberty when it comes to prayer, as long as it is not found to be disruptive towards others. Students may pray openly and are not at all required to keep their Christian faith to themselves as this would go against the First Amendment. Christian students or students of any faith are able to speak openly and even proselytize, though everything must be done with sensitivity to others, as the line that defines it as disruptive can be a thin one.
Other things that students have the liberty to do on campus is start Bible studies and clubs or extracurricular/after school programs. An example of this is “See you at the Pole,” a student initiated and led prayer gathering in which students meet at the flag pole annually to seek God in prayer. This is allowed due to the Equal Access Act that was adopted by Congress in 1984. And this act protects clubs and groups that are started and led by students, from any form of discrimination for any reason relating to religion.
What This Looks Like for Staff and Faculty
Taking a look at students, we can easily see that they have virtually complete freedom in the public school system, but what about faculty and staff? Though teachers and school staff are a bit more tied when it comes to openly sharing, they do have their rights.
School staff is allowed to pray on campus and can even have Bible studies with other members of the staff. They can also attend things like “See You at the Pole,” but the steps to doing this can be a little more complicated (see restrictions on prayer in public schools).
The First Amendment protects Christian staff, just as it does students, and in the words of Bill Clinton, ‘Teachers are by no means required to leave their faith behind at the schoolhouse door.’
Restrictions on Prayer in Public Schools
Now we’ve seen the liberties that students and staff have, what are the actual restrictions to be aware of?
Though the laws that were passed did not affect personal prayer and devotions, it did majorly change the way Christian teachers interact with students. Any form of prayer in the classroom cannot be initiated or led by a teacher or member of staff; teachers must remain neutral when talking with or in front of students about religion.
Personal prayer or Bible studies with staff must either be done before or after school hours or during lunch breaks. If a teacher wanted to attend an event like “See you at the Pole,” they would have to go as a ‘citizen,’ and not in their ‘official capacity.’ Which simply means they couldn’t go in their role as a teacher and would need to not come from their office or classroom, but instead would need to come from a different location to participate in the prayer gathering.
In short, teachers can pray in private but not in front of students as this is seen as the government funding an ‘establishment’ that is biased and violates the First Amendment.
The History of Prayer in Public Schools
The school system was not always this way, in fact, it was quite the opposite. Not only were teachers free to proselytize, pray, or even teach from the Bible, in many schools, there was a daily corporate prayer before class. Faculty had the ability to pray openly and neutrality was not a requirement at this point in history. Many government-funded schools were Christian and had freedom of religious expression whether acting in an official capacity or as a citizen, so what exactly happened?
Engel v. Vitale
In 1962 the Supreme Court case known as Engel v. Vitale thrust the public school system into a new age, one without absolute freedom of prayer or religious practices. Engel was the parent of a student who attended a school in New York; this school recited a non-denominational prayer daily, one that students could excuse themselves from if they wanted or needed to.
Parents, with Engel at the head, however, were not happy about this and declared it unconstitutional, which then led to him suing Vitale – the school board president. After three years, 1959-1962, the case was finally closed with Engel coming out on top. The Ruling was that school-sponsored prayer is in opposition to the first amendment.
Schempp v. Abington
The discussion did not end there but instead prompted further probing and unrest on this topic. The next case was only a year later in 1963 and was between the Schempp family and the School District of Abington Township in Pennsylvania. Abington, under state law, required that all schools read at least ten passages of scripture each day to start.
The Schempp family filed against the district as this violated their own religious beliefs. This further assisted in removing prayer and religious practices from schools that receive government funding and initiated the beginnings of a test that would later be known as the Lemon Test–the test that determines whether the government is violating the establishment clause.
What This Means for Christians
This should give us some hope, knowing that students and staff alike are able to pray.
Freedom of religion has not been stripped out of the school system and there are laws in place that make it actually difficult for the government to encroach upon that right.
Christian students should feel empowered knowing their rights and those of the teachers. Because of these laws, students are enabled to have an enormous influence and hand in shaping the spiritual dynamics of their schools. Also for students who have wanted to know how they can make a difference, be encouraged knowing that you have many options that you can boldly step into!
For the teacher and parent, knowing these laws helps you to confidently and strategically navigate the system—seeking the Lord for opportunities to have a positive and Godly influence at all times.