The U.S. Supreme Court On School Prayer

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1962: Engel v. Vitale

The Court ruled that New York State's encouragement of daily prayer recitations in the public schools was a violation of the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishment of religion. At issue was a short, nondenominational prayer composed by the state board of regents and proposed for adoption by school districts. The vote was 6 to 1, with two Justices not participating in the case.

1963: School District of Abington Township v. Schempp; Murray v. Curlett

A year later, the Court affirmed its ruling in Engel and ruled unconstitutional a Pennsylvania state law and a Baltimore city law that required daily recitations of Bible verses and the Lord's Prayer in public school classrooms. In an 8-to-1 decision, the Court said the Bible could be studied for its literary and historical merits, but could not be used for a daily religious exercise in public schools.

1985: Wallace v. Jaffree

The Court struck down an Alabama law that authorized a daily moment of silence in public schools for meditation or voluntary prayer. The majority in the 6-to-3 decision said the statute did not have a clear secular purpose and the record showed that legislators had the religious intent of returning prayer to public schools. Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in a concurrence, stressed her belief that a moment-of-silence law that did not have a primary purpose of promoting prayer might pass constitutional muster.

1992: Lee v. Weisman

The Court ruled 5 to 4 that prayers delivered by a clergyman at a Providence, R.I., middle school graduation ceremony violated the establishment clause. Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority that school administrators' involvement in arranging for prayers at the ceremony was so pervasive as to create a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise that had a coercive effect on students to participate.

Vol. 14, Issue 15

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