When do student prayers cross the First Amendment line?

Students are free to pray in public schools – except when they aren’t. If this sounds confusing, pity school administrators … Continued

Students are free to pray in public schools – except when they aren’t.

If this sounds confusing, pity school administrators charged with figuring out if and when to draw the line on student prayers.

Current controversies in two regions of the county illustrate how complicated this line-drawing has become:

School officials in Birdville School District, near Fort Worth, Texas, allow students to offer prayers before football games, claiming that since the students freely choose to do so, the prayers are not endorsed by the school.

Meanwhile school officials in Taconic Hills Central District in Craryville, New York recently barred a student from closing her middle school graduation speech with a prayer, claiming that prayers at graduation – even when given by a student – constitute school-sponsored religion in violation of the First Amendment.

Before sorting out who got it right or wrong, let’s remind ourselves of what we know about the constitutionality of student prayers in public schools under current law:

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, school officials may not sponsor or promote religious exercises in public schools. At the same time, however, no Supreme Court decision prohibits public school students from praying alone or in groups, as long as such prayers don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

So far, so good.

But what do school administrators do when a student speaker decides to offer a prayer before a captive audience at graduation or some other school-sponsored event?

Is a prayer given by a student/school-sponsored religion prohibited by the Establishment clause – or is it religious expression protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses?

In the culture wars, one side argues that all prayers at public school events are school promotion of religion, even if delivered by a student. But the other side insists that student prayers are always free speech, whatever the setting or circumstances.

Although the Supreme Court has yet to draw a bright line on this issue, past decisions make clear that when school officials arrange for prayers at school events, those prayers are the unconstitutional government endorsement of religion – even when delivered by outside speakers or students.

Some lower courts, however, have allowed student prayers at school events under certain conditions: If a student speaker is chosen by genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria (i.e., without regard to the student’s religious or non-religious views) and given primary control over the content of the speech, then the student is free to give a religious or anti-religious message.

Relying on these court rulings, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) issued guidelines in 2003 on “constitutionally protected prayer” stating that schools should allow student prayers under those circumstances. And a few states, including Texas, have passed laws urging schools to turn the podium over to students at school events without controlling the content of their speech.

That brings us back to Birdville, where school officials claim that student speakers at football games aren’t selected to give prayers, but are free to give any message they choose. If they happen to give a prayer, then the district argues that Texas law and the USDOE guidelines support their right to do so.

What isn’t known from news reports is exactly how the students are selected to speak at the games – and whether school officials actually allow student speakers to say whatever they like.

But if the Birdville School District really does give students a “free speech moment,” then it is likely that the courts would uphold the practice should the policy be challenged.

But in Taconic Hills, school administrators retain control over the content of student speeches. Permitting students to pray, the district argues, would put the schools in the position of endorsing religion. Earlier this month, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Taconic Hill’s right to bar student prayers.

It’s possible, then, that both school districts got it right under current law.

Whether we’ll see more students praying at school events is difficult to predict. After all, many school officials are understandably reluctant to adopt policies that create a free speech forum at graduations and assemblies.

Turning the microphone over to student speakers can be a risky business for school officials, especially when religious expression is involved.

What I can predict is that when the inevitable happens and a student delivers a prayer from an unpopular religion – or gives a message promoting atheism – public enthusiasm for the free-speech model will wane.

In other words, it might not take long for Birdville to decide that Toconic Hills got it right after all.

  • Joel Hardman

    A lot of these questions would go away if state and local officials would stop trying to underhandedly achieve the clearly unconstitutional goal of promoting religion.

  • Catken1

    And if students would respect their fellow students’ right to attend graduation without being preached at.
    If a student of a minority religion, or an atheist student, used their graduation speech to preach to their classmates, they’d be called rude, intrusive, unreasonable. But a Christian student is just “expressing his or her faith,” even when s/he suggests that fellow students who do not share hir faith will burn in hell forever, and that this is fine by hir.

  • itsthedax

    An event such as a commencement ceremony is paid for by public funds, uses taxpayer-funded resources, and is sponsored by the local government. Preaching and proselytizing at these events is wrong and unconstitutional.

    If a group of students with like interests want to get together and pray, without consuming public resources or taking the time of public servants, there’s no reason that they shouldn’t.

  • jayktakoma1

    Charles gives well- reasoned description of the challenges we face at the intersection of religion and public policy. I also like Catken1′s response. If we all began with a statement such as,” In my belief tradition…..” and encouraged the audience to follow in their own tradition, it would go a long way to removing the perception the the speaker’s beliefs trump everyone else’s. As Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun said “When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.”

  • An-Toan

    If they regulate prayer, do they also regulate meditation?

  • di89

    I don’t think it’s a good idea even if you can squeak by with enough conditions and contortions to make it constitutional.

    But the idea that the students are “freely” doing it? Like there is no pressure to only use certain types of prayers, choose certain types of students? You must be kidding.

    I will believe that the student prayers are truly “free” when a Catholic student gets up there and is allowed to lead the group in a Hail Mary, or a Hindu or Bahai or Muslim or Jewish student is allowed to give a traditional blessing from their tradition.

    Right now it’s “free” so long as it’s Protestant/Evangelical Christian prayer, or nondenominational Christian prayer…just like you can have your Ford any color you want so long as it’s black.

  • nkri401

    No, but why do you ask?

  • PhillyJimi1

    Exactly!

  • SODDI

    It’s an easy-to-determine threshhold.

    1. If attendance is MANDATORY – if a student will not be able to graduate unless they attend the ceremony, then prayer is out.
    2. If the event is sponsored by the state, then prayer is out .

    Christian students should take this as lesson in good citizenship – that they should not force or use the powers of the state to coerce others to participate in their religious rituals.

  • SODDI

    If you coece others into “meditation”, yes.

  • Catken1

    I can also see an argument for keeping prayer out of an event that isn’t mandatory, but that’s important to students, and should be open to all students regardless of faith, like graduation or prom. You shouldn’t have to sit through someone else’s sermon in order to attend your graduation ceremony. You just shouldn’t.

  • Joel Hardman

    I agree with Catken. Schools should not be conditioning participation in events, even voluntary events, on a student’s willingness to hear prayers and proselytizing.

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