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 Michigan—responded to the Supreme Court’s decisions by passing laws calling for moments of silence at the start of each school day. 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.
Voluntary Silent Period in Michigan Schools
Michigan law authorizes local school districts to provide the opportunity for a period of silence each day. During that time, students may choose to meditate if they wish. (Mich. Comp. Laws § 380.1565.)
Teachers’ and Parents’ Prayer Groups at School
Following the Supreme Court’s lead, a federal court in Michigan found that a charter school hadn’t violated the establishment clause by allowing some teachers to meet for prayer before school. As the court pointed out, there was no evidence that students were present at these prayer meetings, or that teachers weren’t allowed to meet on campus to talk about other things unrelated to school business. In light of that, it wouldn’t be reasonable for students to think that the school sponsored the prayer meetings. For similar reasons, the court also found that the school wasn’t promoting religion by allowing a moms’ prayer group to use the school’s parent room, or to let community groups distribute materials—including religious literature—on campus. (Daugherty v. Vanguard Charter School Academy, 116 F.Supp.2d 897 (W.D. Mich. 2000).)
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?