There are strict governmental guidelines about what is and is not acceptable in the public school setting that are from the Constitution of the United States and from Supreme Court decisions. All school districts and all of their employees are bound by the dictates of those decisions because they are public-sponsored institutions of learning.
Prayer is Allowed, But Not Led or Encouraged By School or Its Staff -
According to the ACLU, at any time, a student has the Constitutional right to spontaneously pray or cross themselves before they take a test, for example. Also, students may wear crosses or headscarves that relate to their religious preference. A student has the right to study the Bible or the Koran during lunch time or for silent, sustained reading time. Students have the right to wear turbans, yarmulkes, What Would Jesus Do jewelry, and even MAGA hats. Schools are not hostile to religion.
The essential difference is that all of the above are chosen by the student to do. Every student has the right to freedom of religion, which includes the freedom to be free from religion and to be free from the proselytization of those with other religions.
The ACLU explains that cannot be done is that school staff cannot lead prayers. To some, this may seem innocuous and should not be a Constitutional issue. When school staff leads children in prayers, even non-denominational prayers, they are violating children's rights under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States.
Why Can't the Government or Public School Districts Promote Religion? -
The Establishment Clause states that the government cannot promote religions. Why is this the case? For one thing, there is not just one religion represented by the people of the United States. All of the people of the United States pay taxes in order to support the public school system. Those people include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, people who believe in New Age spirituality, agnostics, atheists, Wiccans and many others. Who would get to decide what is the religion that the state would support?
The founders of this country knew that many of its citizens had escaped persecution in Europe for their religious beliefs that differed from official state religions, such as the Anglican Church of England or the Catholic Church of France or Spain. For this reason, they wisely opted to not support any one religion or sect. Rather, the government was founded upon the principle of freedom of religion for all.
Usually, the religion that many try to promote in the public schools is Protestant Christianity. It would be wise for those who find no problem with Christian prayer in public schools to ask themselves if they would feel comfortable with sending their child off to a school where every student at a certain part of the day was asked to align their body with Mecca and prostrate themselves on the ground as they recited “Allah Akbar.” From this perspective, can one begin to see how Muslims or atheists feel when their children are asked to participate in Christian or non-denominational prayer at school? In fact, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, by the end of the 19th Century, much religious practice in public schools was no longer present because Catholics and other immigrants with religions other than Protestant Christianity were complaining about bible study and other religious practices their religion did not endorse or share.
All of the people of the United States republic pay for the public schools, not just people from one religion. In fact, a 2017 Gallop poll found, 49 percent of the people in the United States defined themselves as Protestant Christian, 23 percent identified themselves as Catholic, 21 percent of Americans did not consider themselves to be religious, 6 percent of the population had a non-Christian faith like Islam or Judaism, and 2 percent identified as Mormons. There is not one size to fit all. In fact, that means one-fifth of the population is stating they don't have a religion.
What if We Simply Let the Other Children Stand Quietly or Go to Another Room? -
According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, before the Supreme Court made their ruling on prayer in the public schools, people whose children did not fit the mold were placed in other rooms during school prayer time. The children of the plaintiffs against religion and prayer in schools were beaten and their families were harassed. No, the school was likely not harassing the families and students, but the students and their parents were experiencing pressure, ostracism, threats, abuse and a form of detention because they did not conform to the religious doctrine the school was promoting.
What Does the Supreme Court Ruling on School Prayer Say? -
According to the Washington Post, the Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored prayer and school-sponsored religious indoctrination in the public schools. According to Justia, in the McCollum case in 1948, the court ruled that the First Amendment protections of students are violated when government-sponsored public schools that have mandatory attendance requirements are allowing religious training to be conducted on their grounds. The Court struck down staff-lead prayers and other religious practices in 1962 in Engel versus Vitale, prayers and bible reading in Abigton School District in 1963, prayers at public school graduation ceremonies with Weisman in 1992 and student-led prayers at public school events in Santa Fe versus Doe in 2000. The Court has been very consistent in not allowing the school or teachers or other staff to lead or sponsor any religion.
Schools are Designed for Education, Not Religion -
The public school system exists in the United States in order to train citizens to be able to read, write, compute, speak and critically think in order to promote their ability to seek employment in the job market and be informed citizens who can participate in a democracy. It is not the function of the schools to train children in religious matters, and teachers receive no training in religion as a part of their teacher certification training. Families in this country are free to expose their children to whatever form of religion they so choose. Many religions in this country hold church services on Sundays or on Saturdays so that children can attend their services that often are held during daytime hours.
We should be glad that the state is not trying to impose any religion on our children. That is the choice of each family and each child as they come of age.
Public schools and educators who do not follow the law regarding not leading prayer in school face the possibility of legal actions. In an issues paper, the ACLU stated that teachers need to ensure that their schools are “religiously neutral” so that all children and their families are safe to decide their own religious course or not in their own home. Educators who are uncomfortable with the laws regarding the teaching of religion in the public schools might feel more comfortable teaching in a religious school in order to promote their religion with families who are willing to have their children pray in school and learn their religious tradition more deeply.
By following the law and allowing children to spontaneously honor their religious traditions or lack of religion, we are allowing families and students to chart their own course in the world, free to participate fully in class as an equal member and free from persecution or coercive pressure to conform to traditions and beliefs they do not share. Students who feel coerced at school are operating at such an insecure level on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, that they are unable to feel safe enough to fully participate in class and achieve to their full potential. That is antithetical to the norms and tenets of good teaching practice.