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School prayer: What you can and can't do


Can school prayer be simplified? Perhaps. The whole issue is much complicated because of the passion and fervor of many individuals and groups who champion religion and prayer, and think it appropriate that they take place at anytime, anywhere, in the life of a believer.

No one contends that a prayerful person should not pray, or could not be entitled to pray, wherever that person chooses. The are very few people who are really anti-religion, or stand in opposition of having someone else participate in religion. The real issue boils down to one question: Under waht cicumstances may a student pray in the public school system?

Why is this a constitutional question? The First Amendment, in effect, says that no governmental authority, including school systems, may authorize, require or restrict the freedom of religion. That is a basic building block of the Constitution, which established and regulates our great nation.

Among those who first came to America, and those who put together the documents for our government, were believers and nonbelievers, those seeking religion and those escaping religion. The consensus and wisdom led to this portion of the First Amendment.

Most school systems derive some or all of their revenue from real-estate taxation. This means that every person who lives in our great country, who owns real estate, will be forced to pay money that will be utilized to develop and maintain public school systems. They must pay those taxes whether they approve of the school system or not. If they are required to pay those taxes, and then those taxes are used to promote religion, that becomes unconstitutional.

So, what can one do? Any student, at any time, can, to himself or herself, recite prayers, seek the guidance of the Lord, express appreciation or meditate. Any group of students can do likewise. Students from any religion may gather. Students without religion may gather. Prayer can be had in private, with others, during a moment of silence, on the playground, or wherever on school properties. There can be no constitutional restrictions on this right.

What can one not do? One may not interfere with the rights of others. One may not pray or conduct prayer sessions in a fashion to interfere with the normal school processes. One may not interfere with the rights of others to do similar things.

What can the school system do? The school system may permit the students to do the above items, subject to the restrictions recited above. The school system may not restrict prayer. The school system may not organize, lead or participate in prayer, for any religion. The school system may not permit its properties to be utilized in furtherance of prayer. This would include public address systems, blackboards, bulletin boards, classroom instructions, teacher requirements or any other thing which encourages, promotes or assists in the furtherance of religion. Some examples

Let's take some examples.

  • We are at a football game. The game has not yet begun. A group of students, sitting in a student section, decides to recite the Lord's Prayer. That is permissible. One student goes to the microphone to lead the Lord's Prayer. That is not permissible.

  • Students arrive early in the morning and gather at the flagpole, and they lead and discuss and enjoy prayers. That is permissible. The school system may not require or authorize or encourage or provide instruction or supervision of that session.

  • A group in the lunchroom sits together, recites appropriate prayers and has religious discussions. That is permissible. Students may not exclude or require the inclusion of any other student in the prayer session.

  • Students may request, before or after school hours, the availability of a room or a space where they can pray. The school system may permit that, as long as it permits other similar types of activities in rooms and spaces, including Boy Scouts, gays and others.

  • A student may hand out to other students a religious docu ment, or a Bible, or the notice of a prayer session. That student may not force another student to accept or stand in the way of the passage of that student who does not wish to accept.

  • A teacher may not preside over or authorize a moment of prayer or the reading of the Bible once the school session has commenced. The teacher may not permit a student to do that during school hours.

  • A student may wear a religious article on clothing or around the neck, or even carry a sign, if there are no restrictions that govern the student body and forbid all such exhibitions. It follows that a student may wear a necklace with the initials WWJD, if necklaces are permitted. If no necklaces are permitted, that one cannot be permitted either.

  • A student may walk down the hall displaying any exhibition that is permitted, but no student may block the access or the unrestricted travel of another student.

  • A teacher may not hand out or give religious material to any student or to anyone else attending or employed at the school system, during school hours. Outside of school hours, before or after, a teacher may participate in a prayer session.

  • If the school permits all interested parties to have allocation of space, before or after school, then such sessions can be held, with a teacher participating.

  • No school system or school representative may provide or conduct any session for religious purposes even if all of the students of a class desire it. It certainly follows that no such session could be conducted which would exclude or embarrass a student from a different religion, or of no religion. Football prayers

    Putting these concepts together, why is it forbidden for an athletic coach to meet with his team, before or after an athletic event, to pray together?

    Well, the coach is part of the school system. The members of the team are a part of the team and have equal rights, and if one member of the team is of a different religion, or of no religion, that individual will be prejudiced by being a part of a prayer group, or embarrassed by walking away from the prayer group.

    These rules do restrict proselytizing or evangelizing, but only to the extent that such does not interfere with or bear upon the rights of others.

    The views expressed here are not for, on behalf of, or against Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Bahai, Buddhism or any other religious faith. They are just the law of the land, constitutional requirements and prohibitions, and a level playing field for all who go to public schools and for all who pay for public schools. The authorization and the restrictions really do seem to be practical and realistic.

    There is nothing un-American or illegal about testing the margins or the parameters of these rules, or even to attempt to modify them by legislation, or by having courts overturn previous decisions. The only requirement is that the public school systems and the students live by the rules that are announced by the courts. Any school system or any student who violates the rules may be punished. That is the American way.

    Karl B. Friedman is a Birmingham lawyer who has handled numerous freedom of religion and other civil rights cases. His e-mail address is

    ©Copyright 2000, The Birmingham News

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