New Mexico Prayer in Public Schools Laws

Prayer in American public schools is a hot topic. The problem with constitutional religious rights is that they are two sided and both sides come to head on school prayer. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution Free Exercise (of religion) Clause guarantees a Constitutional right to express oneself religiously, which includes in public schools. However, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits favoring one religion by permitting or encouraging prayer at school-sponsored events, whether in the classroom, at graduation, or at sporting events.

Finding the balance between permitting religious students to exercise their faith and prohibiting the involvement of the school and government is critical. 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.

In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional for public schools to lead students in prayers. But public schools may be able to start the day with a secular silent meditation period where students may choose to pray, as long as it’s not connected with religion -- a problem in a Supreme Court case out of Alabama, were a moment of silence was found unconstitutional. The problem is the institutionalization of school prayer.

School Prayer Laws in New Mexico

While some states do have laws that specifically address prayer and religion in public schools, New Mexico does not. However, schools in New Mexico must comply with federal law and Supreme Court cases on school prayer because of the Constitutional concept of federal law pre-empting state law.

Religious Instruction Excusal

A related law, New Mexico Statute Section 22-12-3, does permit a religious instruction excusal from school for no more than one class period per school day, with the written consent of the student’s parent and at a time that doesn’t conflict with the academic program (such as your student doesn’t always miss a core subject like math or science and falls extremely behind in the curriculum). This instruction can’t happen on school property. However, this does allow students to leave to attend Catholic confirmation classes or Quranic Arabic or Torah and Hebrew classes during school hours.

The following chart explains the federal law related to prayer in public schools that applies to New Mexico and all other states.

Code Section The New Mexico Statutes and Administrative Code to not address school prayer.

The New Mexico Constitution, Article 2: Bill of Rights, Section 11: Freedom of Religion explicitly gives the right to worship God according to one’s conscience and prohibits denying political rights or privileges due to religion or requiring attending or supporting of any religious sect or denomination, as well as prohibits giving any legal preference to any religion or mode of worship. This is similar to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

New Mexico also passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to protect the freedom of religion.

What is Allowed? Public schools in New Mexico must comply with federal laws and cases that provide religious accommodations for students, if requested. For example, a Jewish student can request the day off for Jewish holidays or Muslim students may request a break and a place to pray at specific times during the school day to meet their religious obligation to pray five times a day at specific times. Additionally, if a Christian child wants to read the Bible during a free reading period, the student can’t be prevented from doing so.
What is Prohibited? Some of the many school prayer-related and religion-related activities that have been found unconstitutional are:
  • Leading official prayers, even if students are allowed to leave the room or it’s allegedly “denominationally neutral” (in practice, always Christian-based)
  • Requiring a minute of silence, if school staff tell students to pray or the clear purpose is religious and not secular
  • Conducting prayers over the school's loudspeaker system before, during, or after sporting events (even if student led)
  • Teaching a specific religion as true, but the history or traditions of world religions can be taught as part of a history, sociology, or similar academic class
  • Requiring that the theory of evolution is only taught with creationism

One recent school prayer incident in New Mexico occurred at the Mora Independent School District where a girl was allegedly prevented from praying silently by herself before having her lunch. If accurate, this was most likely an infringement of her freedom of religion.

If your student has been prevented from practicing his or her religion or was forced to participate in religious activities at school, you should contact an experienced New Mexico education lawyer or civil rights lawyer. A lawyer can help explain the law as it relates to your situation and tell you about your legal options.

Note: Federal and state laws are constantly being revised. The U.S. Supreme Court decides cases about religion regularly. Therefore, you should verify these laws by conducting your own legal research or contacting a knowledgeable lawyer.

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