As part of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, people in the U.S. have the right to practice their religion (what’s known as the “free-exercise clause”). But just as importantly, the First Amendment prohibits government from establishing or promoting religion (the “establishment clause”). Because public schools are government-run, they have to balance the requirements in the establishment and free-exercise clauses.
School-Sponsored Prayer vs. Personal Prayer
In a series of cases over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has set out guidelines for how schools should handle prayer in public schools. Teachers or other school officials may not lead, organize, or encourage prayers in school and at school-related functions. But students have the right to pray alone or with others on campus, as long as they aren’t disruptive or violating other students’ rights. (For more details, see our articles on school prayer and freedom of religious expression at school.)
Many states—including Tennessee—responded to the Supreme Court’s decisions by passing laws calling for moments of silence at the start of each school day, to allow students to pray silently or meditate. The Supreme Court ruled that one of these laws (in Alabama) was unconstitutional, because the only purpose behind it was to promote religion by returning prayer to school. But courts have generally upheld school moment-of-silence laws as long as they have a sincere nonreligious purpose.
Below is a summary of Tennessee law on moments of silence and prayer in schools. (Because states can change their laws at any time, it’s always a good idea to check the current statute by using this search tool.)
Moment of Silence in Tennessee Schools
Tennessee has had several versions of a statute calling for a moment of silence for prayer or meditation. The current law simply says that all public schools must begin the day with a minute of silence for students and teachers to “prepare themselves for the activities of the day.” Teachers may not suggest that students take any action other than to remain quiet. (Tenn. Code § 49-6-1004(a).)
Voluntary, Personal Prayer and Religious Activities
Tennessee also has several statutes that mostly reaffirm what courts have said about students’ First Amendment rights to express their religious beliefs and pray on their own or with others, as long as they aren’t disruptive and don’t violate other students’ rights.
State law says that students may voluntarily participate in religious activities, including:
- praying aloud or silently, alone or with classmates, to the same degree that all students are allowed to speak or meditate on nonreligious topics
- talking about and sharing their religious beliefs, to the same degree that all students may talk about and share their opinions
- passing out religious flyers or literature in school, according to the school’s general rules about where and when students can distribute all literature, and
- organizing prayer groups and religious clubs before, during, and after school, under the same rules that apply to all student groups that aren’t connected to curriculum; and
- express their religion opinions, without discrimination based on those viewpoints.
However, when students are praying or expressing their faith, they may not:
- harass other students or infringe on their rights
- coerce others to participate, or
- hinder school officials’ ability to maintain order, educate students without disruption, and determine class work and assignments.
(Tenn. Code §§ 49-6-2904(a), (b), 49-6-1802, 49-6-1805.)
Students may sue a school for violating their rights under the statute on personal prayer and religious activity, but first they have to go through an administrative complaint process. (Tenn. Code § 49-6-2904(c), (d).)
Student Invocations at School Events
Tennessee law also authorizes students to initiate and lead prayers, invocations, or benedictions at school-related events where attendance isn’t required (like graduation ceremonies and football games), as long as the prayers aren’t connected with a particular religious group and aren’t an attempt to convert their classmates. (Tenn. Code § 49-6-2904(c).) When this provision was being proposed in the legislature, the Tennessee Attorney General issued an opinion that it was unconstitutional (Tenn. Op. Atty. Gen. No. 93-38 (1993)). Undeterred, the legislature passed the bill without the governor’s signature.
Questions for Your Lawyer
- My child has seen teachers praying with students at their flagpole prayer group before school. Can we get the school to stop the teachers from doing this? If not, can we sue the school for violating the establishment clause?
- Can I sue my child’s school for refusing our request to set aside a special room where Muslim students can pray during Ramadan?
- My child’s school allows a parent prayer group to meet on campus during the school day, to help organize student events, and to give flyers to the teachers to send home with students. Even though the school has a policy of allowing any parent groups to meet on campus, isn’t this crossing the line by promoting religious activity?
- My child is part of a group of students who meet outside at lunchtime, pray out loud together, and sometimes pray or sing in tongues. Because a few other students complained about the prayers and “strange sounds,” the school has told the group members they have to pray silently or not at all. Isn’t that a violation of their right to practice their faith?