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.)
Below is a summary of Alabama law on 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.)
The History of Alabama’s School Prayer Laws
In 1978, Alabama responded to the Supreme Court’s landmark school-prayer decisions by passing a law that required a moment of silence “for meditation” at the beginning of each school day (Ala. Code 1975 § 16-1-20). Three years later, the state added two other laws that allowed teachers to:
- observe a daily moment of silence “for meditation or voluntary prayer” (former Ala. Code 1975 § 16-1-20.1), and
- lead “willing” students in an official prayer to “Almighty God” (Ala. Code 1975 § 16-1-20.1).
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the statute allowing time for prayer or meditation violated the establishment clause because its only purpose was to endorse religion. One of the lawmakers had admitted that the statute was an “effort to return voluntary prayer” to schools, and that he didn’t have any other purpose in mind. (Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985).) In a separate decision, the Supreme Court affirmed an appellate court’s ruling that the official-prayer law was also clearly unconstitutional (Jaffree v. Wallace, 472 U.S. 38 (1984)).
Time for Quiet Reflection in School
After those court rulings, Alabama tried again—this time with a statute that simply calls for a minute of “quiet reflection” at the beginning of the school day, graduation ceremonies, and school sports events. (Ala. Code 1975 § 16-1-20.4.)
Even though the law explicitly says that this silent period isn’t meant to be a religious exercise, that hasn’t stopped some teachers from encouraging students to pray. One teacher had a daily “ritual” of collecting prayer requests from students and saying things like “let us pray” and “amen.” A federal appellate court ruled that her actions were a violation of the establishment clause because they endorsed religious activity (Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252 (11th Cir. 2004)).
Voluntary, Personal Prayer
Alabama also has a law that essentially reaffirms 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. The statute spells out students’ right to:
- pray, express their faith, and participate in religious activities before, during, and after school, to the same degree that all students are allowed to express their opinions or participate in activities
- organize prayer groups and “see you at the pole” gatherings, publicize their group meetings, and use school facilities, to the same degree that all students are allowed to organize activities unrelated to school curriculum
- wear clothes, jewelry, or accessories with religious symbols or messages, with no more restrictions than for nonreligious messages on students’ clothing; and
- express their faith in homework, artwork, or other assignments, free from discrimination based on any religious content.
(Ala. Code 1975 §§ 16-1-20.5.)
Student Invocations at School Events
Another statute requires schools to allow students to pray or give invocations or benedictions at student assemblies and events, as long as those prayers are:
- on the students’ own initiative
- nonsectarian, and
- not an attempt to convert their classmates.
(Ala. Code 1975 §§ 16-1-20.3.)
While a challenge to this law was going through the courts, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas high school had violated the establishment clause by encouraging and organizing student-led invocations at football games (Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)). Considering that decision, a federal appellate court found that the Alabama invocation law was constitutional, as long as the prayers were “genuinely student-initiated” rather than the result of school policy that somehow encouraged them. (Chandler v. Siegelman, 230 F.3d 1313 (11th Cir. 2000).)
Questions for Your Lawyer
- My child has seen teachers praying along with students who meet at the flagpole before school for prayers. We’ve complained, but the school says the teachers have a right to do this. Is that right? Can we sue the school for violating the establishment clause by allowing teachers to pray where all students can see them?
- 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 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?