By Victor Cornell
Religious Freedom Campaign Coordinator
Recently, we asked people to take our survey about schools that have students vote on whether to pray at graduation. We received a lot of responses telling us how uncomfortable prayer at graduation made some people, and how they felt excluded or stigmatized at their own graduations. But we also got responses from people who were confused about what is ok and what is not when it comes to prayer in school. So let’s consult the First Amendment and see if we can’t clear things up!
Question: Why can’t students pray? Isn’t that covered by freedom of religion or freedom of speech?
Answer: They can pray, and prayer is protected! Contrary to what you may have heard on the news from certain former presidential primary candidates, students of all religions have the right to practice their religion at school. That right is protected by both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and by the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.1 Students absolutely have the right to pray voluntarily in school, alone or with friends at any time that doesn’t disrupt classes.2 But here’s the part where people get tripped up. One of the most important ways that the law protects students’ religious freedom is by preventing the government – including government-run public schools – from telling kids when or what to pray. The same First Amendment that ensures students have the freedom to practice and express their faith is what protects students from having any religion or prayer forced on them by schools.
Question: What’s wrong with schools promoting religion?
Answer: Public schools are government entities; therefore they must respect all faiths and favor none. Along the same lines, the government cannot show a preference for religion in general over the beliefs of nonreligious people.3 Matters of individual conscience should be left to the individual, not forced upon students by school administrators or teachers. That’s the very definition of freedom!
Question: If the whole school votes and a majority say they want a prayer at an event, wouldn’t that be okay?
Answer: No. One of the most important jobs of the Constitution is to protect the freedom of the minority to practice a faith that the majority may disagree with. Balloting or voting for prayer still favors the majority religion over others and is unfair to the students whose beliefs don’t conform to the majority. In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Supreme Court held that by setting up an election and providing the stage for prayer, the school was still coercing students to pray.4 It doesn’t matter whether the person leading the prayer is invited clergy or a student or if the prayer is non-denominational; it’s all coercive and unconstitutional if school officials organize, sponsor or endorse it.
A few respondents to the survey worried that the ACLU of Texas was discriminating against Christians. But think of it this way. What would happen if a Texas school opened its graduation ceremony with a Wiccan Esbat ritual or a chanting of Hindu kirtans? Do you think the Christians in the audience would be offended? Do you think they might feel that they were being forced to participate in religious rituals that conflict with their cherished, deeply held beliefs? Of course they would! And rightly so!
The question is, “How would you feel if that happened at your graduation?” Unfortunately, it happens to students across Texas every year, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, or atheist. We are reminded of Luke 6:31 (NIV) “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The good news is, whenever coerced prayer happens in Texas, we are there, defending the Constitution and students’ freedoms of and from religion!
1Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 110.003.
2Tex. Educ. Code § 25.901. See also Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 512-13 (1969).
3See Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 53 (1985).
4Santa Fe, 530 U.S. at 317.