prayer has proven highly controversial. In the
case of Engel v Vitale in 1962, the Court ruled that New York's
practice of beginning school days with a prayer drafted by school
violated the Establishment Clause. This is the case, the Court
whether or not students are given the option of not participating in
prayer. Writing for the Court, Justice Black said the
Establishment Clause was violated when school put "indirect coercive
pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the officially
approved religion." Peer pressure being as strong as it is among
the young, many students who might otherwise choose not to participate
in prayer will do so for fear of otherwise being seeing as an
Engel dealt with an officially
approved prayer, not the question of whether school officials could set
aside time for voluntary silent prayer. That issue arose in the
1985 case of Wallace v Jaffree.
Alabama had for some time authorized schools to dedicate part of the
school day for "a period of silence for meditation." The
period-of-silence law almost certainly did not offend the First
Amendment because it did not endorse religious reflection over other
types of reflection, be they philosophical or personal. Not
satisfied, it seems, with how students might be using their period of
silence, Alabama legislators amended the statute to provide for a
"period of silence for meditation or silent prayer." The sponsor of the legislation frankly stated that
the purpose of his amendment was to get more kids to use their time to
recite prayers. In Wallace,
the Court, voting 5 to 4, held that the amendment to the Alabama
moment-of-silence law lacked a secular purpose and struck it
Lee v Weisman (1992) considered
school prayer in the special context of a graduation ceremony for a
middle school. The principal of the school had invited a
clergyman to offer an invocation and benediction at the ceremony, and
that decision was challenged by Weisman, who contended that the
practice violated Establishment Clause precedents. Again voting 5
to 4, with Justice Kennedy providing the key vote, the Court found the
invocation and benediction to violate the First Amendment.
Kennedy found an unacceptable degree of coercion, given the fact that
the ceremony was an important milestone that students would be
extremely reluctant to avoid because of religious scruples. The
options of remaining seated during prayers or leaving right before the
benediction did not seem realistic under the circumstances.
Justice Scalia, in a passionate dissent, ridiculed Kennedy's opinion as
a "psycho journey" and wrote that he would not find a problem with
prayer at graduation ceremonies unless the state attached a penalty to
the Court has demonstrated a willingness to strike down any
practices that might be likely to be perceived either as coercive or as
a state endorsement of religion. That trend continued with the Court's Santa Fe v
Doe decision in 2000, which considered the policy of a Texas
school district that
allowed students to elect students to speak briefly over the PA system
before high school football games. Traditionally, the speeches
religious in character--the policy stated that the speeches should
the event and be nonsectarian in nature. The Court found the
Fe school policy to be a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Court reasoned that the speeches were at a school-sponsored event,
school facilities, and would be taken by most observers as a school
of the student prayers that were likely to be delivered. The
process ensured, the Court thought, that the religious messages would
the religious views of the majority of Students, who in the case were
Fundamentalist Christians. The three dissenters argued that the
policy was neutral on its face and not a constitutional
Nothing in the school policy, the dissenters said, even required that
message be religious in nature.
Engel v Vitale (1962)
Wallace v Jaffree (1985)
Lee v Weisman (1992)
Santa Fe Indep. School Dist. v Doe (2000)
Happy members of the group that challenged
New York's daily prayer in Engel v Vitale.
2. Why worry about voluntary--as opposed to mandatory--prayer? How much harm is suffered by those who must choose to opt out of prayer?
3. Is it constitutional for a teacher to tell students, in the absence of any official school policy, "Now, children, we will have two minutes for either silent meditation or prayer"?
4. Does standing for a prayer send a message that the person standing supports the prayer? Would Lee v Weisman have been decidedly differently if the principal expressly stated that those who might wish to stand for a prayer could do so?
5. What do you think about Justice Scalia's characterization of Justice Kennedy's opinion in Lee v Weisman as "a psycho-journey"? Is the Court well-equipped to draw the sort of psychological conclusions that it did in that case?
6. How important is the history of the policy involved in the Santa Fe case--especially the fact that the initial policy specifically referred to "prayer" before the football games?
7. Is it a violation of the Establishment Clause for a football coach at a public university to lead a voluntary prayer for players before the game?
8. Is it permissible for a group of players, on their own, to gather in a lockerroom before the game and pray?
9. Is it permissible for members of the crowd at a football game to plan to sing hymms and recite prayers before a football game? Does it become a constitutional violation if a school official, using the PA system, decides on his own to join the crowd in their hymm-singing and prayer?