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 Arizona—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 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 Arizona 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 Arizona Schools
State law in Arizona authorizes local school districts to require that each school day begin with a minute of silence. The teacher must announce that this time will be for meditation, with no other activities allowed. (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 15- 342(21).)
Voluntary, Personal Prayer and Religious Activities
Another Arizona statute 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 law says that students should be able 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
- wear clothes, jewelry, or accessories with religious symbols or messages, with no more restrictions than for nonreligious messages on students’ clothing; and
- include expressions of faith in any class assignment that calls for students’ opinions, with the work graded on normal academic standards rather than being penalized or rewarded for any religious content.
The statute also spells out schools’ obligations:
- not to discriminate against students or parents based on their religious opinions
- not to require anyone to take part in prayers or other religious activities
- not to violate anyone’s constitutional rights
- to maintain order and discipline
- to protect the safety of students, employees, and visitors, and
- to enforce policies on students’ speech, while protecting their rights under state and federal laws and constitutions.
(Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 15-110.)
Questions for Your Lawyer
- My child’s teacher bows her head during the silent period in class, and then she says “Amen” at the end. Can we get school officials to make the teacher stop this behavior? And if they won’t, 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 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?