The role of prayer and religion in public schools is a hot topic of debate in California, which doesn't have statutes specifically addressing the matter. Federal courts have been similarly non-definitive on the matter of whether the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. After a series of appeals that went back and forth, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the inclusion of those words did not violate constitutional law.
California statutes do not address the specific matter of prayer in public schools, but federal law offers more guidance. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 1962 case (Engle v. Vitale) that New York State public schools could not start each day with a prayer, which set a widely followed precedent. While many state laws mandate a one-minute period of silence in which students and faculty may pray or meditate silently, California schools may honor this custom voluntarily. The U.S. Department of Education offers the following suggestions:
"If a school has a 'minute of silence or other quiet periods during the school day, students are free to pray silently, or not to pray, during these periods of time. Teachers and other school employees may neither encourage nor discourage students from praying during such time periods."
When considering the law with respect to public school prayer, it is important to differentiate between school-sponsored prayer and voluntary prayer. A school violates federal law by setting aside time or space specifically for "prayer," but that doesn't mean students are prohibited from praying voluntarily. For instance, a student who says a prayer to herself and then does the sign of the cross (a common Christian ritual) before taking a test is not violating the law. Similarly, someone giving a graduation speech may invoke religion as long as it is clearly not endorsed by the school.
The following links and resources should help you better understand the issue. See FindLaw's Religion at School section for additional articles and resources, including Is a Minute of Silence at School Permissible? and School Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance: Constitutionality.
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Note: State laws are constantly changing -- contact a California constitutional attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.
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California Prayer in Public Schools Laws: Related Resources
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