School Prayer: Separation of Church and State


Why Johnny Can’t Pray — At School

While the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S Constitution, it forms the basis of the reason that organized prayer, as well as almost all types of religious ceremonies and symbols, have been banned at U.S. public schools and most public buildings since 1962.

In 1992, Congress passed a resolution designating January 16 Religious Freedom Day, to honor the anniversary of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, originally authored by Thomas Jefferson. This act inspired and shaped the guarantees of religious liberty eventually found in the First Amendment.

The text of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom reads: “… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced … in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

In essence, the 1786 act affirmed that the right to practice any faith, or no faith, is a foundational freedom of all Americans. It was this right to which Jefferson was referring when he spoke of a “wall of separation” between the church and the state.

Jefferson’s famous phrase came in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. The Baptists were worried that the proposed Constitution would fail to specifically protect their freedom to practice their faith, writing to Jefferson that “what religious privileges we enjoy, we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights,” which is “inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Jefferson wrote back that religious liberty, free from government tampering, would be a key part of the American vision. The Constitution, he wrote, would “restore to man all his natural rights.” In this same letter, Jefferson explained the intent of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This, he said, built a “wall of separation of church and state.”

In the United States, church and state—the government—must remain separate according to the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Basically, the establishment clause prohibits federal, state and local governments from displaying religious symbols or conducting religious practices on or in any property under the control of those governments, like courthouses, public libraries, parks and, most controversially, public schools.

While the establishment clause and the constitutional concept of separation of church and state have been used over the years to force governments to remove things like the Ten Commandments and nativity scenes from their buildings and grounds, they have more famously been used to force the removal of prayer from America’s public schools.

School Prayer Declared Unconstitutional

In parts of America, regular school prayer was practiced until 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Engel v. Vitale, ruled it unconstitutional. In writing the Court’s opinion, Justice Hugo Black cited the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment:

“It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America. … Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause … Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion …The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by a civil magistrate…”

In the case of Engel v. Vitale, the Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9 in New Hyde Park, New York directed that the following prayer must be said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day:

“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

The parents of 10 school children brought the action against the Board of Education challenging its constitutionality. In their decision, the Supreme Court did indeed find the requirement of the prayer to be unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court had, in essence, re-drawn constitutional lines by ruling that public schools, as part of the “state,” were no longer a place for the practice of religion.

How the Supreme Court Decide Issues of Religion in Government

Over many years and many cases mainly involving religion in public schools, the Supreme Court has developed three “tests” to be applied to religious practices for determining their constitutionality under the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

The Lemon Test

Based on the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, the court will rule a practice unconstitutional if:

  • The practice lacks any secular purpose. That is if the practice lacks any non-religious purpose; or
  • the practice either promotes or inhibits a particular religion; or
  • the practice excessively (in the court’s opinion) involves the government with a religion.

The Coercion Test

Based on the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 the religious practice is examined to see to what extent, if any, overt pressure is applied to force or coerce individuals to participate.

The Court has defined that “Unconstitutional coercion occurs when: (1) the government directs (2) a formal religious exercise (3) in such a way as to oblige the participation of objectors.”

The Endorsement Test

Finally, drawing from the 1989 case of Allegheny County v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, the practice is examined to see if it unconstitutionally endorses religion by conveying “a message that religion is ‘favored,’ ‘preferred,’ or ‘promoted’ over other beliefs.”

Church and State Controversy Will Not Go Away

Religion, in some form, has always been a part of our government. Our money reminds us that, “In God we Trust.” And, in 1954, the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Eisenhower, said at the time that in doing so Congress was, “…reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way, we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

It is probably safe to say that for a very long time in the future, the line between church and state will be drawn with a wide brush and gray paint.

For more information about an earlier court case dealing with separation of church and state, read about Everson v. Board of Education.

The Roots of ‘Separation of Church and State  

The phrase “separation of church and state” can be traced to a letter written by Thomas Jefferson for the purpose of explaining the intent and application of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. In the letter addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, and published in at least one Massachusetts newspaper. Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Historians believe that in his words, Jefferson was echoing the beliefs of Puritan minister Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist church in America, who had in 1664 written that he sensed the need for “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”