Religion in the Public Schools

Tom Shipka

Millions of dollars are spent on litigation annually over disputes about religion in the public schools. A great many of these lawsuits could be avoided if school officials and parents had a better understanding of the key laws and court decisions governing this area. Fortunately, a book has just been published which can promote such an understanding and help all parties comply with the law and minimize litigation. It is entitled Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents' Legal Rights. The author is Anne Marie Lofaso who teaches in the College of Law at West Virginia University. (1)

  • Religion in the Public Schools deals with all the hot button legal issues in our public schools, including prayer, moments of silence, meditation, and invocations,
  • dress codes,
  • Bible study groups,
  • censorship of student publications,
  • use of school facilities by non-curricular and non-school groups,
  • alternatives to evolution such as creation science and intelligent design,
  • courses on religious scriptures or world religions,
  • requests to accommodate religious holidays and religious dietary practices, and
  • the right of students to opt-out of material in classes to which they or their parents object, among others.

Let's focus here on just one of these, prayer in the public schools. Professor Lofaso points out that decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts place strict limits on prayer in school because of the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution which prohibits government entities from endorsing or promoting religion. She writes:Under Supreme Court decisional law, it is unconstitutional for public school officials to write prayers for recitation by students, select prayers for recitation by students, start each day with a reading from the Bible, set aside moments for silent prayer or meditation if the purpose of such a moment is clearly to foster prayer, invite outside clergy to graduation to give a prayer or an invocation, or develop a selection process for students to vote on which students may give a prayer...before high school football games over the school's public address system. (2)Even prayer at school board meetings is unconstitutional. (3) Does any prayer on school property pass constitutional muster? Yes! An individual student may pray on his or her own at any time "before, during, or after the school day." (4) Further, prayer which is initiated by students and which is voluntary, such as early morning prayer meetings around a flagpole or a pre-game prayer, is permissible provided that school officials, including coaches, do not promote or lead it. (5)

Professor Lofaso's book should be required reading for future public school administrators and teachers who are matriculating in the nation's colleges of education. It should also be read and kept for reference by superintendents, principals, members of boards of education, attorneys who practice public school law, teachers, and parents. It is thorough, accessible, clear, and extensively documented. Indeed, Religion in the Public Schools is a model of discipline-related public service for which Anne Marie Lofaso deserves the gratitude of everyone with an interest in public education.

  1. 2009, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. ISBN 978-0-615-31001-5.
  2. Pages 26-27.
  3. Page 33.
  4. Pages 37-38.
  5. Page 38. "Where the conduct is genuinely student-initiated activity and not fostered or supported by public school staff, that conduct is constitutionally permissible." (Page 37) At the same time, though, there is no consensus among the courts whether teachers and other school representatives may legally participate in such student-initiated prayer meetings. See pages 38-39.

© 2009 Tom Shipka