The term “school prayer” is understood to refer to a state sanctioned prayer in public school classrooms. This would mean either that the state allowed for a time of prayer in the classroom, and/or a set of allowed invocation to be led either by the teacher or one of the students.
Actually, school prayer has been a part of American classrooms for more than a century until the Supreme Court ousted such a practice in 1962 and 1963 (Neiberger, par. 13). From the time that such a practice was declared to be contrary to the first amendment establishment and free exercise clauses, the issue never really died down.
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Some people rejoiced over the eradication of such an exercise, while others have continuously blamed the present moral crises and poor SAT scores on the elimination of school prayer (Gaylor, par. 23). In this paper, I would want to argue that the elimination of school prayer is true to the essence of the American Constitution. I will argue on this point by showing the constitutional and legal bases of claim.
The Legal Bases of the Abolition of School Prayer
The First Amendment specifically says that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion [known as the Establishment Clause] or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [known as the Free Exercise Clause]” (The Constitution of the United States). The Establishment Clause acts as the guardian for the separation of Church and State, while the Free Exercise Clause protects the right of individuals to practice religion or to not practice any at all (“School at Prayer: A Community at War,” par.
1). The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause guarantees the right of religious practice of everyone, and that means students included, but such a practice should not interfere nor infringe on the free exercise of others. In the school setting, this would mean that “Students have the right to engage in voluntary individual prayer that is not coercive and does not substantially disrupt the school's educational mission and activities” (Anti-Defamation League, par.
2). This also means that teachers may not, acting in their office as teachers, promote any religion nor initiate or encourage prayer among the students: “When acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, teachers, school administrators, and other school employees are prohibited by the Establishment Clause from encouraging or discouraging prayer, and from actively participating in such activity with students” (US Department of Education).
As a public school teacher, neutrality to religions would have to be practiced; one’s individual faith or lack of it should not intervene in the exercise of neutrality in schools. To make our point clear, we could cite some cases that should exemplify this neutrality at the same time this right to free exercise of religion. The Anti-Defamation League gave some examples so that this point could be understood. We would cite some of these examples.
A student may, in the exercise of her religion, pray personally inside the classroom or before eating meals as long as such an exercise is neither disruptive nor coercive. This would mean that a student may not pray when being called upon for recitation. This would also mean that students may not broadcast prayers in the school intercom. Forcing other co-students to pray or to engage in some other religious activities would likewise be unconstitutional.
A student-initiated and school sanctioned prayer before an athletic event or similar activities would clearly be coercive at the same time potential exclusive of students who do not practice any religion or whose religious foundations are radically different from those students who have initiated the prayer. The same caution should also be practiced by the faculty members and staff. The case of Central Valley High School football championship was cited as an exemplifying case.
On the day of the Central Valley High School football championship, the coach gave the traditional pep talk to the Bulldogs, and afterwards asked his team to do a prayer together. Richard Nelson, an atheist student, felt uncomfortable. The coach simply told him that he could either not join in the prayer or step out for while as the remaining members of the team do their prayer. In such a case, the coach’s actuations would clearly be unconstitutional since promoting prayer would be endorsing a religion, or at the very least, religiosity. It is the coach’s responsibility to remain neutral. His actions showed partiality, and at the same time isolated Richard Nelson from the team.
Another case that is worth citing would be the case of Jessica Lewis. Jessica Lewis makes it a point to pray during recess and even engages her classmates into a religious conversation. The school officials were alarmed and hence forbade Jessica from praying and engaging in religious conversations during recess. Actually, the school officials should not keep Jessica from praying and engaging in such conversations as long as her practices are not disruptive nor coercive.
As long as she does not interfere in school activities and does not force her classmates to converse with her, there would be nothing unconstitutional in Jessica’s actions. In this case, Jessica’s acts would not constitute school prayer; it would plainly be a voluntary, personal prayer that is fully protected by the Free Exercise Clause.
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