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 Virginia—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 Virginia 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 Virginia Schools
In Virginia, all public schools must provide for a daily minute of silence. During this minute, students may meditate, pray, or do anything that’s quiet, non-distracting, and doesn’t interfere with whatever their classmates choose to do. The law makes it clear that students should be free of any pressure to either participate or not participate in any religious observation on school grounds. (Va. Code § 22.1-203.)
After some students and their parents challenged the constitutionality of this law, a federal appellate court found that it didn’t violate the establishment clause because it had at least one clearly secular purpose: to help students focus at the beginning of the school day, as well as to help teachers maintain discipline and order. In addition, the law neither promoted nor discouraged religion, and the moment of silence was designed to accommodate all students, whether they were religious or not. (Brown v. Gilmore, 258 F.3d 265 (4th Cir. 2001).)
Voluntary, Personal Prayer
Virginia 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 statute says that all public school students may pray on school grounds when they’ve chosen to do so on their own initiative. (Va. Code § 22.1-203.1.)
- Another law says that students may include expressions of faith in homework, artwork, and other class assignments. Teachers should use normal academic standards to judge students’ work and shouldn’t discriminate based on any religious content. (Va. Code § 22.1-203.3.)
Responding to a requirement in state law (Va. Code § 22.1-203.2), the Virginia Board of Education adopted a detailed set of guidelines on religious activity in its pubic schools, including constitutional rights and restrictions.
Questions for Your Lawyer
- My child’s teacher bows her head during the silent period in my child’s class, and then she says “Amen” at the end. As a result, most of the students do the same. 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?
- Other kids have been picking on my child for reading a book during the moment of silence, but the school isn’t taking any action against them. Is there anything we can do?
- 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?