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 North Carolina—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 North Carolina 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.)
Moment of Silence in North Carolina Schools
In North Carolina, local school districts may adopt policies for observing a minute of silence at the beginning of each day in their public schools. The time must be completely unstructured, and teachers may not influence what students should be doing other than to keep quiet and stop all other activities. The state law says that the silent period is intended to allow students and teachers time for quiet reflection, to create a boundary between students’ lives outside of school and in the classroom, and to establish a “tone of decorum” that encourages learning and discipline. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § § 115C-47(29).)
Voluntary, Personal Prayer and Religious Activities
North Carolina also has laws that essentially reaffirm 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. One of these statutes says that students should be allowed to do any of the following voluntarily:
- pray aloud or silently, alone or with classmates, to the same degree that all students are allowed to speak or meditate on nonreligious topics
- talk about and share their religious beliefs, to the same degree that all students may talk about and share any opinions
- pass out religious flyers or literature in school, within the school’s general rules about where and when students can distribute all literature
- organize and publicize prayer groups, religious clubs, and other gatherings before, during, and after school, under the same restrictions that apply to all student groups that aren’t connected to curriculum; and
- include expressions of faith in homework, artwork, and other assignments, with their work judged on normal academic standards rather than discrimination based on any religious content.
However, the law also says that schools may bar students from doing any of these things if they are:
- harassing other students
- coercing others to participate, or
- hindering school officials’ ability to maintain order, educate students without disruption, and determine class work and assignments.
(N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-407.30.)
The state also calls for a process to handle complaints by students (or their parents) who believe that the school has violated their rights under the law on student prayer and religious activity. Parents need to go through the administrative grievance process before they can sue the school for violating these rights. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-407.31.)
When Teachers Can Join Students in Prayer
Another North Carolina law affirms the right of teachers and other school employees to join in student-led voluntary prayer groups or other religious activities before or after the school day, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the employees’ other responsibilities. The statute also says when students are voluntarily praying during extracurricular activities (such as before football games), coaches and other supervisors may be present, shouldn’t be disrespectful, and may “adopt a respectful posture.” However, the law emphasizes that it’s not meant to allow school employees to encourage or lead any religious activities in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-407.32.)
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?