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Iowa Prayer in Public Schools Laws

Prayer in U.S. public schools is a hotly debated topic across the nation. Some people believe the First Amendment Free Exercise of Religion Clause guarantees the ability to express oneself religiously, including at school. Others feel strongly that the First Amendment Establishment Clause prohibits the favoring or institutionalization of any religion by any government entity, including schools, meaning prayer can’t be permitted or encouraged at school events, in the classroom, at graduation, or at sporting events.

Constitutional Religious Rights and School Prayer

The Constitution protects both a separation of church and state and the right of religious expression. In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that it’s unconstitutional for public schools to lead their students in prayers. However, schools can start the day with a silent meditation where students may choose to pray. In a different Supreme Court case out of Alabama, a moment of silence was found unconstitutional, but the Court chose not to hear an Illinois “moment of silence” case in 2011. Therefore, Illinois school could continue to have a moment of silence each day.

Thus, apparently, to satisfy both sides of constitutional religious rights, there can be no official school prayer, but students and teachers should be able pray at school on their own time.

School Prayer in Iowa

Some states have enacted laws to address religion and prayer in public schools. Iowa has not. That doesn’t mean no law exists, as Iowa schools must comply with federal laws, including the Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, about school prayer. The following chart briefly explains the prayer in public schools in Iowa.

Code Sections Iowa has no statute or code provisions on prayer in public schools. However, the Iowa Constitution, Article I: Bill of Rights, Section 3: Religion explicitly prohibits the establishment of religion or restricting the free exercise of religion. It states no one can be compelled to attend any place of worship. This is similar to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
What is Prohibited? The Supreme Court has held that the U.S. Constitution prohibits many school prayer-related and religion-related activities, including:
  • Leading official prayers, even if students are allowed to leave the room or a “denominationally neutral” (in practice, a Christian-based) prayer is said
  • Requiring a minute of silence where teachers tell students to pray, at least when the clear purpose is religious and not secular
  • Conducting prayers over the school's loudspeaker system before football games (even if student led)
  • Teaching a specific religion as the truth, although the history or traditions of various religions can be taught academically as part of a history, sociology or similar class
  • Teaching the theory of evolution only if taught with creationism
What is Required? Schools must provide religious accommodations for students upon request. For example, a Jewish student could have the day off for the High Holy Days or Muslim students may request a break and place to pray at specific times during the school day as required by their religion.

Also, a Christian student can read the Bible during a free reading period. Iowa law specifically says that religious books, such as the Bible, Torah, and Quran can’t be excluded from public schools or state institutions and that no child can be required to read religious books against his or her parent’s wishes.

Although we all hope our school districts follow the law, that doesn’t always happen. If you feel your child has been prevented from practicing his or her religion or was forced to participate in religious activities against his or her will, you should contact an experienced Iowa education lawyer or civil rights lawyer. A lawyer can help clarify what the law is and inform you of your legal options.

Note: Federal and state laws are updated constantly. The Supreme Court also decides religion-related cases regularly. Therefore, it’s important to consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify these school prayer laws.

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