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, even if participation is voluntary (for example, see Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).). At the same time, 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 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 Kentucky 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 Lord’s Prayer and a Moment of Silence
Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Engel, Kentucky still has a law on its books that authorizes teachers in public elementary schools to lead students in reciting the traditional Lord’s prayer along with the pledge of allegiance. The statute says that the voluntary prayer is meant to symbolize freedom of religion, not to influence anyone’s personal religious beliefs. (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 158.175(1).) Most legal scholars agree that this provision is unconstitutional.
In 2000, Kentucky amended this same law to add that teachers in all public schools are allowed to observe a minute of silence or reflection (Ky. Rev. Stat. § 158.175(5)).
Voluntary, Personal Prayer and Religious Expression
A separate law in Kentucky 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. As it was amended in 2017, the statute spells out students’ rights to pray and practice their faith in different ways, including:
- praying, expressing their faith, and sharing their beliefs before, during, and after school, to the same degree that all students are allowed to express and share their opinions
- meeting with prayer groups or religious clubs before or after the school day (and announcing those meetings), as much as other student organizations are allowed to do the same
- wearing clothes with religious messages, as long as the school allows any messages on clothing
- passing out religious literature, under the same rules for when and where students may distribute literature on any other topic, and
- expressing their faith in homework, artwork, or other assignments, free from discrimination based on any religious content.
However, students may not:
- harass other students or infringe on their rights
- continue to direct their religious opinions at students who’ve told them to stop
- coerce others to participate in prayers or religious activities, or
- hinder school officials’ ability to maintain order, educate students without disruption, and determine class work and assignments.
Students may not sue a school for violating their rights under this law until they’ve filed a complaint and have waited for the completion of the school district’s investigation. (Ky. Rev. Stat § 158.183.)
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?