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 Florida—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.
Silent Period in Florida Schools
Florida was one of the states that reluctantly followed the Supreme Court’s lead to do away with laws calling for daily prayers and/or Bible readings in public schools. Decades later, the state passed a law that simply allows local school districts to set aside up to two minutes at the beginning of each school day or week, for the purpose of silent prayer or meditation. The statute also says that Florida’s public schools may include “the objective study of the Bible and of religion” as part of their curriculum. (Fla. Stat. § 1003.45.)
Voluntary, Personal Prayer and Religious Expression
The “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act,” which took effect in July 2017, essentially reaffirms what courts have ruled 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 act spells out students' right to pray and practice their faith in different ways, including:
- praying, participating in religious expression, or organizing prayer groups before, during, or after the school day, to the same degree that all students are allowed to express their opinions or organize extracurricular activities
- expressing their faith in coursework and other assignments, free from discrimination based on religious content, and
- wearing clothes and accessories with religious messages or symbols, to the same extent as the school allows clothing or accessories with any messages.
The act also says that teachers and other school personnel must be allowed to participate voluntarily in religious activities on school grounds at reasonable times before or after the school day, as long as students initiated those activities and the employees’ participation doesn’t conflict with their job duties. School districts may not discriminate against school employees, students, or their parents based on their religious viewpoint. (Florida SB 436, 2017.)
Questions for Your Lawyer
- During the silent period in my child’s class, the teacher bows her head, folds her hands, and then says “Amen” at the end. As a result, most of the students do the same. 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?
- Other kids have been picking on my child for reading a book during the moment of silence, but the school isn’t taking any action against them. Is there anything we can do?
- 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?