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HAF Policy Brief: Prayer in Public Schools 

A variety of amendments and other measures are being introduced, considered, and advocated for that would mandate worship in public schools. Though the specific content of these proposals vary, the substantive impact is that students would be expected to engage in religious activity during school time. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) finds the coercive nature of these provisions and their divisive tendencies troubling and potentially dangerous.    

Efforts to mandate prayer in public schools are unconstitutional and violate the secular ideals enshrined in our laws. The Constitution and subsequent legal precedent unequivocally mandate the separation of church and state. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down religious instruction in public schools in McCollum v. Board of Education.[i] In 1962, the Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale ruled that official prayer has no place in public education and that government officials are not allowed to compose a prayer for students to recite.[ii] In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington Township School District v. Schempp that school-sponsored Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer are unconstitutional.[iii] Courts have consistently ruled that teachers may not participate in religious activities with students at any time relevant to the school day.[iv]

Despite these constraints, significant latitude of religious activity is allowed within public schools. Students can pray in school buses, at the flagpole, in student religious clubs, and in the hallways and cafeteria. If the school has as few as one extra-curricular student-led and student-organized group, then students have a legal right to organize a Bible or other religious club to meet outside of classroom time.[v] 

The movement to mandate prayer in public schools is troubling on a number of grounds. Violence has resulted from such provisions in the past.[vi] Though the prayers sanctioned may be non-denominational and non-sectarian in theory, there is a real possibility that such measures will lead to imposition of one religious tradition on all students regardless of their individual faith. Many people advocating for these measures are motivated by a desire to have their beliefs taught in the public schools and illegally use the educational system as an instrument for conversion or evangelism.

Author Robert S. Alley has interviewed several prominent individuals involved in relevant high-profile court cases and observes, “Communities attempt to impose the mores and cultural patterns of religion on their public schools; in some instances these Christians have gone beyond angry protests to threats of violence against the parents and children and even as far as arson and other property damage.”[vii]

More than 1,500 different religious bodies and sects co-exist and flourish in America. There are over 360,000 churches, mosques, temples and synagogues.[viii] Over 90 percent of Americans profess a belief in God; more than half say they pray at least once a day, and more than 40 percent say they have attended worship services during the previous week.[ix] The separation of church and state has allowed religion to flourish while enabling peaceful coexistence among a plurality of faiths.

In light of the enduring continuity of religious faith in America, it is neither necessary nor advisable to bring religion into the public sphere, especially the classroom, where children are most vulnerable to peer pressure and the influence of teachers and other students. The appropriate forum for instilling morals and values is at home, and most parents would prefer to keep it that way. Mandating prayer does not create a more spiritual or religious society; instead, it politicizes religion and makes a public display of what should be personal and individual. It enables evangelization and the denigration of non-majority religious beliefs.

While many Hindus pray regularly and Hinduism has always recognized the power of prayer, Hindus believe strongly in the values of pluralism, acceptance, tolerance, and respect for the diversity of the spiritual paths of humanity. HAF feels it is wrong to require prayer in school for those individuals who would not be comfortable engaging in such religious activities.

The Hindu American Foundation believes strongly that the separation of church and state must be maintained and that prayers should not be mandated in public schools during instructional time. As such, HAF urges the following:

1)     Recognition that in a multi-faith, religiously diverse society, the government should be neutral towards religion. Accordingly, public schools can allow individual student religious expression without promoting any specific faith or tradition;

2)     Recognition that decisions about religious activity and belief should be delegated to the home and private sphere. This is the stance adopted by the Supreme Court and one by which we must abide; and

3)     Condemnation of any federal or state legislation that seeks to mandate prayers or any other religious activity in public schools.

The pdf version of this policy brief can be downloaded here.

 



[i]
McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 68 S. Ct. 461, 92 L. Ed. 649 (1948).

[ii] Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601 (1962).

[iii] Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844, 83 S. Ct. 1560 (1963).

[iv] See, e.g., Doe v.Duncanville Indep. Sch. Dist., 70 F.3d 402 (5th Cir. 1995) (holding that coach’s practice of leading and participating in prayers with basketball team before and after games is unconstitutional); Steele v. Van Buren Ph. Sch. Dist., 845 F.2d 1492 (8th Cir. 1988) (affirming that band teacher could not lead student band in prayer before rehearsals and performances); Peloza v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist., 782 F.Supp. 1412 (C.D. Cal. 1992), aff’d, rev’d on other grounds, 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994) (disallowing teacher from discussing his religious views with students during instructional time).

[v] “Religion and Prayer in U.S. Public Schools: Introduction, Constitution, Court Decisions, etc.,” Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, April 27, 1995, at: http://www.religioustolerance.org/.

[vi] For example, full-scale riots occurred and many lives were lost in Philadelphia in 1844 over a dispute on which version of the Bible should be used in the classroom. A similar conflict divided Cincinnati in 1869.

[vii] Robert S. Alley, "Without a Prayer: Religious expression in Public Schools," Prometheus Books, at: http://www.religioustolerance.org.

[viii] “Front Page,” ACLU, March 6, 1998, at: http://www.aclu.org.

[ix] Ibid.