State Laws

Although the United States Supreme Court ruled prayer in public schools unconstitutional in 1962, many individual states have not taken action to conform with the Court’s edict. Until the early 1960s, there were no laws on the subject of prayer in schools, though some states’ supreme courts have addressed the practice under their own state constitutions. After the Supreme Court struck down the practice—without reference to any specific legal precedent or established legal theory—many states responded by drafting laws authorizing prayers and moments of silence designed to avoid the Supreme Court’s definition of impermissible activity. Twenty-nine states have enacted such laws. For example, Delaware authorizes a brief period of silence up to two minutes of silence “to be used according to the dictates of the individual conscience of each student”; other states’ statutes authorize “brief times” or one, two, or five minutes of “silent prayer,” “silent reflection,” or “silent meditation.”

The law in this area, though settled, is still controversial. There are strong efforts afoot to reintroduce prayer in public schools, particularly by individuals who maintain that the current crisis in public education (low test scores, violence in the classrooms, drug and alcohol abuse) began when prayer was made illegal, and, conversely, strong efforts to fight the reintroduction, particularly by proponents of the theory of the separation of church and state.

The prevailing theme in the proposals to reintroduce prayer in public schools is one of voluntariness. Such efforts, however, are doomed as long as peer pressure in the classroom is equated with state action; that is, as states cannot encourage a particular religious practice, peer pressure exerted upon nonparticipants in a “voluntary” program is considered coercive.

Inside State Laws