Although the prayer ban has proven largely comprehensive, the Supreme Court has not banned religion from schools. Instead, it has held that context is critical in determining what is permissible and impermissible.
The Supreme Court has never banned students from praying voluntarily and privately on their own, provided there is no state intervention. Students simply must do so without the guidance or coercion of school authorities. Religious student groups may meet after school like other student clubs, as guaranteed by the federal Equal Access Act, and pray on their own.
Study of religion is also constitutionally permitted. Even in its earliest prayer cases, the Supreme Court noted that schools were free to discuss religion within the context of a secular course of instruction, such as, for instance, a history course.
Between 1971 and 1990 the Supreme Court used a three-part test to determine whether state programs involving religion were permitted under the Establishment Clause. Following the standard first announced in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Court upheld a challenged religious program if it met all three conditions:
- It has a secular purpose
- It has a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion
- It does not excessively entangle government with religion
This test began losing validity in the 1990s as the Supreme Court refused to apply it. Shifts in the court’s analytical approach did not signal a reversal on doctrine, however; in fact, in 1992, the majority upheld its original school prayer ruling of 30 years earlier, and subsequent decisions extended the ban to prayers at public school events. By 2001, the test for compliance with the Establishment Clause generally required that a school policy demonstrate a secular purpose that neither advances nor inhibits religion in its principal effect. Courts continued to carefully scrutinize such policies to see that they did not endorse, show favoritism toward, or promote religious ideas.