The issue of prayers in public schools has been a prickly one for years, although the law has been clear since 1962. The Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale held that state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools. But public school students have always had the right to pray on their own, class schedules permitting. On the other hand, Bible reading and official prayer violate the First Amendment if they are not done voluntarily by students, said the Supreme Court in Abington School District v. Schemp.
In 2014, the Mesa, Arizona school board brought the issue back by opening a meeting with a prayer. The Freedom from Religion Foundation plans to sue the school board over the issue, and the Foundation thinks it will win the lawsuit. Foundation attorney Andrew Seidel discusses the issue in this report.
Seidel says that opinions from the 6th Circuit and the 3rd Circuit Courts of Appeals have said that “school boards are not allowed to pray.” Seidel adds that the Foundation is presently litigating a case like this in federal court in California, and he believes that the case will go to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He expects the Foundation to win that case and notes that Arizona is part of the 9th Circuit.
Seidel says that the U.S. is shifting away from religion; about a quarter of the population has no religion, and in those under thirty, over one-third of them consider themselves non-religious. This group, says Seidel, is representative of the population in Mesa, AZ. “They don’t want prayer forced on them.” That also doesn’t count members of other religions—Jews, Muslims, and Hindus.
Seidel points out that students are free to pray so long as they are not disrupting classes. That is a different matter from any sort of school-organized prayer or religious event. This includes prayers at graduation or over the loudspeakers at high school football games, according to Supreme Court opinions. As for moments of silence, the Supreme Court has said that these are sometimes acceptable.
Seidel says that children have sometimes been essentially persecuted over school prayer. He notes that the Foundation is taking a Georgia case that deals with this issue. Children were told to go out in the hall during prayer because “your parents don’t believe in God.” The teachers are thus dividing the classroom along religious lines. Seidel says this is a common occurrence and that the Foundation handles over 3,500 such complaints every year. Seidel adds that these exclusionary practices often lead to bullying of children whose parents want to exclude them from school religious activities.
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program allows school vouchers to be used for religiously-sponsored education. This has prompted criticism, although the Arizona Supreme Court has held that the voucher program is constitutional. Seidel’s take is that “those are some bad decisions.” The courts have said that parents can choose not to send their children to religious schools, so the vouchers pass muster. Seidel opines that the groups pushing for vouchers want to undermine public education. Seidel adds that “the first clause of the First Amendment guarantees us a secular government.” Public schools need to be neutral on religion.
Andrew Seidel is a constitutional consultant with the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He studied human rights and international law at the University of Amsterdam and traveled the world on Semester at Sea. He has written a book on International Human Rights Law and his essay on the role of religion in government and the founding of our nation placed second in the FFRF's 2010 graduate student essay contest. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.