Is prayer allowed in our public schools? It can be a loaded inquiry these days. While the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits public schools from promoting or favoring any one religion, the First Amendment also provides for the free expression of beliefs. This tension has played out in state laws that attempt to satisfy both ends of the spectrum. Pennsylvania prayer in public schools laws allow for "reasonable periods of time" for meditation or related activities. The table and discussion below provide more insight on the subject.
|Applicable Code Section||Tit. 24 §15-1516.1|
|What is Allowed?||Brief period of silent prayer or meditation which is not a religious exercise but an opportunity for prayer or reflection as child is disposed|
Public Prayer and the Establishment Clause
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution prevents the federal and state government from endorsing or oppose any religion or no religion at all. This means that a school or other public entity cannot force students to engage in a prayer, even if the prayer is not associated with any religion at all. This is because asking students to engage in a nondenominational prayer infringes on the rights of students who do not believe in any religion at all.
Teaching Religion in Public Schools
The constitutional prohibition on prayer in schools does not prevent instruction on religion. However, it does prevent instruction that tends to favor one religion over another. Teaching about different religions is common in many public schools, and this instruction generally does not violate the constitution if the instruction is factual and serves a secular purpose.
Private Prayer in Public Schools
As much as the constitution prevents teachers and school officials from asking students engage in prayer, it also cannot prevent the students from engaging in private prayer. Not allowing students to pray on their own would infringe on student's rights to practice religion as much as forcing students to pray infringes on their rights to not practice religion. Many public schools have student-led religious groups that meet on campus, and these groups are generally permissibl.e
A "Minute of Silence" in Public Schools
One compromise between many students' desires to have a prayer, and the right to not engage in prayer, is for a teacher to ask for a minute of silence. This gives the students who wish to pray the opportunity to pray, and gives students who do not wish to pray the opportunity for self-reflection, or to engage in any non-disruptive activity.
Public prayer in schools is a very hot topic, and the laws about what is and is not permissible can change very quickly. If you would like to know more about the current status of prayer in Pennsylvania public schools, you may wish to consult a Pennsylvania attorney with education law experience. As well, if you feel like you may have a claim for a violation of Pennsylvania's laws on public school prayer, speaking with an attorney who has civil rights experience may help.
Contact a qualified attorney.