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 Massachusetts—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 Massachusetts 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.)
Mandatory Silent Period in Massachusetts Schools
Massachusetts requires all of its public schools to have a minute of silence at the beginning of each school day. Teachers must tell students that the time is for “personal thoughts,” and no other activities are allowed. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 71, § 1A.)
When some students challenged this law, a federal court ruled that it was constitutional. At the time, the statute said that the silent period was for mediation or prayer (rather than personal thoughts), but the court still found that it had a legitimate secular purpose, neither promoted nor restricted religion, and didn’t coerce students to do anything against their beliefs. (Gaines v. Anderson, 421 F.Supp. 337 (D. Mass. 1976).)
Students’ Voluntary, Personal Prayer
Another Massachusetts law says that any local public school may allow students to participate in voluntary prayer before daily classes start, as long as their parents have approved. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 71, § 1B.)
Shortly after this law went into effect, a Massachusetts court held that it was unconstitutional for a local school committee to pass a resolution making time available in classrooms for students and teachers to pray, just before the start of each school day. (Commissioner of Ed. v. School Committee of Leyden, 267 N.E.2d 226 (Mass. 1971).)
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?