Prayer and the Pledge
The most enduring and controversial issue related
to school-sponsored religious activities is classroom
prayer. In Engel v.Vitale (1962), the Supreme
Court held that the Establishment Clause prohibited
the recitation of a school-sponsored prayer in
public schools. Engel involved a simple and seemingly
nonsectarian prayer composed especially for
use in New York’s public schools. In banning the
prayer exercise entirely, the court did not rest its
opinion on the grounds that unwilling students
were coerced to pray; that would come much
later. Rather, the court emphasized what it saw as
the wrongs of having the government create and
sponsor a religious activity.
The following year, the high court extended the
principle outlined in Engel to a program of daily
Bible reading. In Abington School District v. Schempp,
the court ruled broadly that school sponsorship of
religious exercises violates the Constitution.
Schempp became the source of the enduring constitutional
doctrine that all government action
must have a predominantly secular purpose – a
requirement that, according to the court, the
Bible-reading exercise clearly could not satisfy. By
insisting that religious expression be excluded from
the formal curriculum, the Supreme Court was
assuring parents that public schools would be officially
secular and would not compete with parents
in their children’s religious upbringing.
With Engel and Schempp, the court outlined the
constitutional standard for prohibiting school sponsored
religious expression, a doctrine the
court has firmly maintained. In Stone v. Graham
(1980), for instance, it found unconstitutional a
Kentucky law requiring all public schools to
post a copy of the Ten Commandments. And in
Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), it overturned an Alabama
law requiring public schools to set aside a moment
each day for silent prayer or meditation.
School sponsorship of student-led prayer has fared
no better. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that
schools may not sponsor student-recited prayer at
high school football games.
Lee v. Weisman (1992)
More sweeping in its consequences is Lee v.
Weisman (1992), which invalidated a school-sponsored
prayer led by an invited clergyman at a public
school commencement in Providence, R.I.The
court’s 5-4 decision rested explicitly on the argument
that graduating students were being forced to
participate in a religious ceremony.The case effectively
outlawed a practice that was customary in
many communities across the country, thus fueling
the conservative critique that the Supreme Court
was inhospitable to public expressions of faith.
So far, lower appellate courts have not extended
the principles of the school prayer decisions to
university commencements (Chaudhuri v.Tennessee,
6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1997; Tanford v.
Brand, 7th Circuit, 1997).The 4th Circuit, however,
found unconstitutional the practice of daily
prayer at supper at the Virginia Military Institute.
In that case, Mellen v. Bunting (2003), the appellate
court reasoned that VMI’s military-like environment
tended to coerce participation by cadets.The
decision was similar to an earlier ruling by the
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of
Columbia, which found unconstitutional a policy
of the U.S. service academies that all cadets and
midshipmen attend Protestant, Catholic or Jewish
chapel services on Sunday (Anderson v. Laird,
1972). For the court, the key element was the
service academies’ coercion of students to attend
the religious activity.
The Pledge of Allegiance
In 1954, Congress revised the Pledge of Allegiance
to refer to the nation as “under God,” a phrase
that has since been recited by generations of
schoolchildren. In 2000, Michael Newdow filed
suit challenging the phrase on behalf of his daughter,
a public school student in California. Newdow
argued that the words “under God” violated the
Establishment Clause because they transformed
the pledge into a religious exercise.
The case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, reached the Supreme Court in 2004, but
the justices did not ultimately decide whether the
phrase was acceptable. Instead, the court ruled that
Newdow lacked standing to bring the suit because
he did not have legal custody of his daughter. In
concurring opinions, however, four justices
expressed the view that the Constitution permitted
recitation of the pledge – with the phrase
“under God” – in public schools.
Since then, the issue has not again reached the
Supreme Court but is still being litigated in the
lower courts. In Myers v. Loudoun County Public
Schools (2005), the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals upheld the reciting of the pledge in
Virginia, but a U.S. district court in California
ruled the other way in a new suit involving
Michael Newdow and other parents.The court
ruling in California, Newdow v. Congress of the
United States (2005), is on appeal in the 9th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals.
Photo credit: Corbis