Education Law

New Jersey Laws on School Prayer

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
New Jersey passed a law allowing a moment of silence in schools, but a federal appeals court ruled that the statute was unconstitutional.

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.)

Moment-of-Silence Laws

Many states responded to the Supreme Court’s decisions by passing laws that required or allowed teachers to start the school day with a moment of silence. The Supreme Court looked at one of those laws—in Alabama—and found that it violated the establishment clause because it’s only purpose was to endorse religion. The statute said that the silent period was “for meditation or voluntary prayer,” but the Court found no evidence of a secular or nonreligious reason behind it. In fact, one of the lawmakers had admitted that the law was an “effort to return voluntary prayer” to schools, and that he didn’t have any other purpose in mind. (Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985).)

The Fate of New Jersey’s Law

Meanwhile, New Jersey passed its own law authorizing teachers and principals in its pubic schools to allow students to observe a minute of silence for “quiet and private contemplation or introspection” (N.J. Stat. § 18A:36-4.) Not long after the Jaffree decision, a federal court of appeals followed the Supreme Court’s lead to rule that the New Jersey statute was unconstitutional, even though it was voluntary and didn’t mention prayer (May v. Cooperman, 780 F.2d 240 (3rd Cir. 1985)). The appellate court accepted the trial court’s finding that there wasn’t a genuine secular purpose behind the law, which was the latest in a series of efforts by lawmakers to reintroduce prayer to schools. (New Jersey hasn’t repealed the law, even though it’s no longer valid.)

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?
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