Prayer in the Schools:

Should Americans be Allowed Public Display of their Religious Beliefs?

Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.

(Investigator 145, 2012 July)

A perennial litigation issue before the United States' courts — and still discussed in the press, such as by former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich — is the subject of religion and public schools. One example is the courts have consistently ruled that it is "unconstitutional" for teachers or school authorities to lead, or even encourage, any type of individual or organized audible "prayer" in the public schools (Brookhiser, 1994).  The most recent Supreme Court case, Lee vs. Weisman, resulted in a 5-4 decision to uphold the prohibition of employee-sponsored prayers in public schools.  
The ruling surprised many because three of the five majority ruling justices were "conservatives." The court based their decision on the claim that hearing a verbal prayer could cause "social stress" in nonconforming students (Boston, 1992). This decision, often regarded as a blanket ruling outlawing certain speech content, is fraught with problems (Wooding, 1993).  

What is outlawed in this court decision is certain speech content, specifically religious speech that is authorized or allowed by the school. The first concern is defining prayer. Usually a prayer starts with "Dear God" and ends with "Amen." What if these words were omitted, is the speech still prayer? What about saying "if there is a God, please bless us," or just "please bless this class," or even just "I hope the class does well." The verbalization of "Lord, would you please help my class to do well on their exams. Amen" would be illegal, but would "Lord, I am going to help my class do well on their exams today" also be legal? That the details of these rulings have yet to be worked out is illustrated by the following incident.  

During the September 11th 2001 World Trade Center terrorist disaster, a group of elementary students on an official school field trip were trapped at the top of the building. To exit, they had to descend about 100 floors in a dark smoke filled stairwell, and none of the students nor the teacher possessed any knowledge about what dangers may be found as they worked their way to the bottom, or even if they would survive the ordeal.  

To help comfort the children, their teachers sang religious songs and prayed with them. This act opened up a whole new area of litigation because, strictly speaking, this behavior was a violation of court rulings, and similar violations are enthusiastically pursued by the ACLU to insure that such behavior does not occur in schools or during any official school activities (Dierenfield, 1992). Nonetheless, the teacher was not prosecuted because it was recognized that to deny the children some comfort would be cruel.

These situations help us to understand why both private schools and the home schooling movements are rapidly growing in America. Incidents such as this will also eventually force the courts to rethink the officially sanctioned government hostility toward traditional religion in general, and theism in particular. Many scholars in this area now realize that the official non-theism, actually atheism, which predominates in the textbooks and school curricula is hardly religious neutrality, an ideal which the government repeatedly seems to trample on by going to extremes on one side or the other (Johnson, 1992). In cases such as the above, will the courts rule that prayer led by a teacher in an emergency or traumatic situation is legal or illegal?  The courts have not yet touched on this question, but in

the past two generations, the courts have seriously impinged on traditional conceptions of the role of religion in America. The Founding Fathers thought the First Amendment's establishment clause meant that the state should be friendly to all religions but play no favorites. Now the clause is taken to mean that the state is neutral between belief and non-belief — that is, it vigorously promotes secularity in all public functions (Leo, 1993:20).
Now that most high schools and colleges have had their post supreme court Lee vs. Weisman ruling graduation, the effect of the recent supreme court decision outlawing school sponsored or condoned prayer at these events can begin to be assessed (Boston, 1992). An evaluation of those individuals initiating such bans, such as Madeline Murray O'Hare, reveals that the original intent behind outlawing formal religious behavior in schools is part of an attempt to reduce the influence of religion in the United States by atheists. Their eventual goal is to minimize the impact of the Judeo-Christian-Moslem belief structure in American society.  

Ironically, though, it seems that government repression of religion often has had the opposite effect, partly because something that is banned is often more appealing.  Many Americans believe prohibiting speech based on its religious content is wrong and hypocritical because other kinds of speech content, including obscene language and that advocating behavior which most Americans find abhorrent, such as calling murdered men names at their funerals has been repeatedly allowed by the courts.  Prohibiting this speech content has been consistently ruled unconstitutional censorship. A Reader's Digest poll found 80% of its respondents disapprove of the Supreme Court ruling that made school approved prayer at a high school graduation unconstitutional, and 75% favor the right to openly offer prayer in public schools (Methuin, 1992:75-76).

One aspect of school prayer that is often ignored is that it demands religion and the state (and also now public life) be kept "separate," a goal contrary to most religions' purpose of changing their members total behavior for the better.  There is no one so disliked as a Sunday Christian, a person who puts on the coat of righteousness on Sunday, and then cheats in business and on his wife on Monday. Religion is good only if it makes people better.  We are now in a stage in history where we condemn both those who do not live their faith on Monday and those who do. As Alfred North Whitehead once stated, many people tend to think that religion, properly understood, is what a person does with their solitude time.  

The sin of Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam, is far less because of what it has caused people to do, and far more because people have not done what their religion says they should do. Indeed, the ethic of "loving thy neighbor as thyself" is a prominent part of all three of these belief structures. And, challenging prayer, instead of stopping the expression of a believer's worldview, may shame many of those who may not be inclined to express their worldview into doing so.

Consequently, the ban has forced students to take the initiative in this area. This has resulted in many separate church sponsored Baccalaureate services, resulting in imparting far more religious content than otherwise would have been the case before the court ruling (Zirkel, 1990). The Supreme Court Engel vs. Vitale decision determined that no state or local government can allow prayer or scripture reading in schools, yet polls found that the majority of respondents disagree with that decision, and 61% favored a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in schools.  Separation of church and state was seen as important by 66% of the responses, but a majority felt that prayer at public gatherings, such as at sports events or sessions of Congress, should be allowed.  

The court ruling has also had the effect of motivating students to reevaluate what they believe, and openly express their feelings where formerly apathy reigned. In my local high school graduation, several honor students did an excellent job articulating a position on politics and religion that they normally would not have been anxious to advocate openly. Indeed, attempts to suppress religion may do more to bring about a religious awakening than all of the preachers in the world admonishing their flock to serve God and live a moral life.

Legislating Morality

Issues such as gays in the military and prayer in school may have more in common than it first appears. Both involve forcing a minority view on the majority. Organized school employee directed school prayer is outlawed, it is claimed, because the majority belief offends a minority who find such behavior objectionable. No doubt, many who have experienced a person reciting a prayer in public have felt uncomfortable. Likewise, forcing the military to accept gays offends the majority who deem homosexual behavior offensive. Prayers said at public functions are often carried out in a perfunctory way, and not uncommonly has the effect of trivializing both prayer and religion — somewhat like pornography cheapens sex. I remember a principal who was openly involved in an adulterous affair seemingly without guilt who once gave an emotional prayer at a public school — and we thought "what a hypocrite."  

My early upbringing was in the Jehovah's Witnesses. We were forbidden under pain of disfellowshipping — the total cutting off from all family members and friends who are Jehovah's Witnesses (not even being allowed to speak to such persons) — to partake in even quasi "religious" exercises in school. The reason was that we were taught all religions, aside from our own, are not only wrong, but evil and of Satan.  We, therefore, regarded all religions with contempt, believing that only we had the key to salvation. We were also not to take part in the Pledge of Allegiance, partly because it contained the phrase "under God" and contains other quasi-religious elements. Jehovah's Witnesses and many other groups for this reason oppose prayer or religious exercises in the public schools.  

My own experience of hearing the prayers of others in school had the effect that the Watchtower Society feared — I came to learn that other's prayers were much like my own, and in time I realized that the teaching that these people were of Satan was a lie. Consequently, I was eventually forced out of the Witnesses. Sociological research has confirmed that positive exposure to another culture or religion breaks down prejudice; this was a major rationale behind the forced integration of races. Getting to know persons of other races and backgrounds forces a person to confront the enormous commonality that he or she has with them, and often helps to break down false stereotypes about other groups.  

For this reason, outlawing or discouraging prayer in school may result in building barriers between people instead of tearing them down.  What society should be stressing is tolerance for all groups, or at least understanding the rationale a group uses to justify its conclusions. Agreeing with someone and developing tolerance for them are two different things. Likewise, outlawing religious garb in the public schools helps breed intolerance for those people and groups. As forced integration can reduce prejudices, governmental encouragement of positive exposures to different national, economic, religious, and professional groups can likewise help to tear down the prejudices that many groups harbor toward each other.  

Religious hatred and nationalism have, according to one estimate, resulted in the loss of almost a billion lives since the turn of the last century. Consequently, all societies should help their people develop tolerance for other groups. Admittedly, forcing religion down other people's throats is not a very effective way of convincing them of the validity of one's beliefs. The heavy-handed method that many schools have used in the past is also to be condemned.  Conversely, passing laws that forbids speech in the public forum solely on the basis of its content is also abhorrent and likewise is to be condemned.

The intellectual class thinks religion is fine if conducted in private as a personal pursuit, like woodworking or chess. But if religions bring their moral concerns into the public arena, the elite is always ready to stamp its collective feet and howl about dangerous zealots and a crumbling wall between church and state.  That culture basically thinks it's illegitimate for religions to do what they are set up to do: act communally and forcefully on moral issues (Leo, 1993:20).

A Yale law professor concluded that American has transformed itself from one of the most religiously free countries to one of the more religiously intolerant (Carter, 1993). Now that the Eastern Block and the former Soviet Union not only permit religious influence, but openly encourage it, the situation in America has, indeed, become bitingly ironic.  


Boston, Rob. "The Wall Still Stands." Church & State, July-Aug., 45(7):4-7, 1992.

Brookhiser, Richard. "Let Us Pray." Time, December 19, 1994:84.

Carter, Stephen. The Culture of Disbelief.  New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Dierenfield, Bruce J. "Should the Children Pray? A Historical, Judicial, and Political Examination of Public School Prayer."  (Book reviews).  Journal of Church & State, Spring, 34(2):386-387, 1992.

Johnson, Phillip.  Darwin on Trial. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991.

Leo, John.  "Boxing In Believers." U.S. News and World Report.  Sept. 20, 1993, p. 20.

Methuin, Eugene H.  "Let Us Pray!" Reader's Digest, Nov., 1992, pp. 75-81.

Woodward, Kenneth. "Making Room for Religion." Newsweek, Vol. 72(12), Sept. 20, 1993, pp. 56-57.

Zirkel, Perry A. "Opening the Door to After-School Prayer (Forcing a Christian Club at Westside High School in Omaha)." Phi Delta Kappan, Sept., 72(1):84-87, 1990.