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 Ohio—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.
Silent Period in Ohio Schools
State law in Ohio allows local school districts to schedule a daily, voluntary moment of silence in public schools for prayer, meditation, or reflection on “a moral, philosophical, or patriotic theme.” Teachers may also lead classroom activities on similar themes for a reasonable amount of time, but they can’t require participation if the activities go against a student’s religious beliefs.
The same statute also reaffirms what courts have said about religious freedom in schools. It prohibits school districts from either promoting religion or preventing students from voluntarily and individually expressing their religious faith. At the same time, the law allows schools to limit that expression to lunchtime or other periods outside of classroom instruction. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3313.601.)
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?