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When is it Constitutional to Have Bible Study and Prayer in Schools?

Katie is passionate about advocating for ethical government and upholding democratic norms and the rule of law.

Freedom of Religion is Protected by the First Amendment

The First Amendment separates church and state.

The First Amendment separates church and state.


Prayer in public schools can be a contentious topic in US politics. This article will address what religious activities are and aren't allowed in schools and the history behind this issue.

First, we'll discuss the Bill of Rights and the Establishment clause in the first amendment of the US Constitution. Next, we'll discuss how the Establishment Clause works with the Due Process Clause of the 14th amendment to apply the 1st amendment to all levels of government. Then we'll discuss why the Bill of Rights regulates what can and cannot occur in schools and the Supreme Court cases that effect religious activities in schools.

Bill of Rights Summary

Freedom of Religion in the First Ammendment

The first ten amendments to the constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights prohibits Congress from encroaching on the basic human rights of the American people. One of the rights protected in the first amendment is freedom of religion. More specifically, the first amendment prevents congress from encroaching on the people’s freedom of religion. The clause that protects this freedom is known as the establishment clause.

The First amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The phrase, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is known as the Establishment Clause.

Review of the First Ammendment

Applying the First Amendment to All Levels of Government

While the establishment clause protects the American people from having their rights encroached upon by the federal government, it does not provide the same protection from state or local government. This protection is offered by the due process clause in the fourteenth amendment in conjunction with the establishment clause.

The first section of the fourteenth amendment reads:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The portion of this section that states, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States;” is known as the Due Process Clause. This clause means that unless someone is charged with, tried for and convicted of a crime that merits a punishment that infringes on one’s basic human rights, no level of government can make a law regarding the establishment of religion or prohibiting free exercise of religion.

Explanation of Due Proccess

Public Schools are Government Agencies

Public schools are funded with tax funds and are government entities. This means that school practices and procedures are subject to the establishment and due process clauses. As a governmental agency, a school cannot make rules that establishes or prohibits religion or the free practice thereof.

As long as no public funds are used to promote religion, charter and private schools can apply religious principles and lessons to their curriculum as they want. Charter and private schools are not held to the same expectations because enrollment in them is optional. (These families can withdraw consent for having their children exposed to religion this way at school by transferring back to the public schools and still have their children's right to education respected. The same cannot be said of families attending public school.)

The Establishment Clause Creates a Wall of Separation Between Church and State

Because public schools are a government agency managed on a state level, the 1st and 14th amendment require the separation of church and public schools.

Because public schools are a government agency managed on a state level, the 1st and 14th amendment require the separation of church and public schools.

What the Supreme Court has Said About the Extent to Which Church and State Must be Separated Regarding Religious Activity in Schools

Everson v. Board of Education

The first noteworthy case was brought before the Supreme Court in 1946. In this case, Mr. Everson claimed that it was unconstitutional for a New Jersey law that allowed parents who sent their children to school on buses operated by the public transport system to include the parents who sent their children to Catholic schools. He argued that this was publicly funding religious education.

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However, the court ruled that this did not violate the establishment clause of the 1st amendment (through the due process clause of the 14th) because services like bussing were so “separate and so indisputably marked off from the religious function” (Everson v. Board of Education) that they did not constitute a violation of separation of church and state and therefore did not violate the 1st or 14th amendments. They also noted that no money went directly to the religiously affiliated school.

Can the School Sponsor Released Time Religious Studies?

McCollum v. Board of Education Dist. 71

The next case was heard in 1947. The Champaign Public School district held optional religion classes during a portion of the school day. Students could opt out if they so desired. Those that opted out spent the time studying non-religious topics.

Vashti McCollum, whose daughter attended school in the district, brought a case against the school district stating that the released time religious classes were unconstitutional because the district was involved in funding and planning the released time and its religious functions. She was concerned that not all religious groups were getting the same time as the predominate sect. She also claimed that while the district called the sessions optional, they were not optional in practice because of the ridicule and pressure the students were subjected to if they didn’t willingly attend the sessions.

The court ruled in McCollum’s favor, 8-1. It was decided that it was unconstitutional for government to encourage, promote or aid religious education.

Do Conversations of How to Pray and Bible Study Belong in the Classroom?

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

In 1962, a religious freedom case was brought by New York families against their state board of regents, for requiring a prayer they had composed to be recited by the children each morning:

"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen."

The court ruled in favor of the families objecting to the composed prayer and declared that composed prayers unconstitutionally promoted a specific religion.

Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (1963)

Abington School District v. Schempp concerned mandatory bible reading in public schools in Pennsylvania. At the beginning of the school day students were required to listen to or help read 10 bible verses, without comment, before beginning the studies of the day.

This case was heard with Murray v. Curlett, which was brought by an atheist and challenged a Baltimore statute that required that students read a chapter from the Christian Holy Bible and/or the Lord’s Prayer, without comment, every day.

Justice Clark wrote the majority opinion and explained that while religion was of great importance in American history, the constitution forbade it to be promoted by governmental agencies. He continued to say that prayer is a form of religion and that it, as well as mandated bible reading, was thus unconstitutional.

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)

An Alabama law permitted teachers to set aside one minute at the beginning of the day for silent meditation or voluntary prayer. Ishmael Jaffree, whose children attended school in Mobile County, Alabama, claimed that this minute was an attempt to encourage prayers in school. He also claimed that teachers used this time to indoctrinate his children and to lead class-wide public prayers even after several requests for the practice to be stopped. The court agreed that the law allowing this minute for voluntary prayers in schools was unconstitutional.

Thus, these three cases demonstrate that the Supreme Court has ruled organized prayer and scripture study in the public classroom unconstitutional.

The Three Pronged Measuring Stick

Lemon v. Kurtzman

In 1971, the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman was brought before the Supreme Court. The issues at hand involved whether or not “making state financial aid available to church-related educational institutions” was constitutional. The Supreme Court responded with a three part test that could be used to determine if a law violated the establishment clause or not. This test has been used to make a decision on several additional cases since 1971.

In order to be permissible under the constitution, a statute must:

  1. “have a secular legislative purpose”
  2. “have principal effects which neither advance nor inhibit religion”
  3. “not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion”

The third leg of the test was deemed necessary because a noticeable bit of follow up on the usage of the public funds by the Catholic school would be necessary. The court worried that this follow up may interfere with the function of the school and the role of religion in the school. As a result, the third leg of the test was adopted in order to protect the private schools and ensure they could freely teach what they wanted to.

Creationism versus Evolution is an Age Old Debate that Continues Today

The debate on teaching evolution and creationism in schools is a hot topic for both religious and non-religious.

The debate on teaching evolution and creationism in schools is a hot topic for both religious and non-religious.

Creationism and Evolution

Epperson v. Arkansas

Appellant Epperson, a teacher, brought this case to the Supreme Court for relief from Arkansas’s state “anti-evolution” statute. The clause prohibited any state funded school from teaching, or using a textbook that taught, that humans ascended or descended from a lower order of animals. The court ruled in favor of the teacher. Because the sole reason for the law was because a religious group considers the evolution theory to conflict with their religious beliefs, which included the creation story found in the Book of Genesis, the court ruled that this statute was in direct conflict of the establishment clause

Edwards v. Aquillard

In this case, which was argued in 1986, a Louisiana law that required that evolution was only taught if creationism was also taught was declared unconstitutional. The Supreme Court decided that this law failed when judged against all three prongs of the test developed in Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971.

Displays and Decorations

Stone v. Graham

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that a Kentucky statute that required that the 10 commandments to be posted in all classrooms was unconstitutional because it failed the “secular purpose” clause of the test derived in Lemon v. Kurtzman. This ruling was also monumental because it was the first case that tried the constitutionality of a passive practice.

In Summary:

It is constitutional:

  • for patrons of religiously affiliated schools to receive governmental money when their counterparts in public schools receive this aid, so long as they meet the appropriate criteria and the money does not promote religion in any way
  • for students to quietly observe their religious traditions in their daily conduct at school

It is not constitutional:

  • for school districts or other governmental groups to be involved in planning or funding released time for religious education.
  • for students to be required to recite a pre-composed prayer, whether it is the Lord’s Prayer or a prayer written by a government agency, during the school day or be required to participate in a moment of silence or other practices designed to encourage prayer.
  • for students to be required to read from the bible as part of a religious exercise
  • for law or policies to forbid evolution to be taught or require that creationism be taught along-side evolution whenever evolution is discussed in the classroom
  • for passive measures to be used in the classroom to promote religion
  • for religiously themed items to be used as decoration when those decorations served no clear secular purpose

In order for a practice to be constitutional it must meet three criteria. It must:

  1. “have a secular legislative purpose”
  2. “have principal effects which neither advance nor inhibit religion”
  3. “not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion”

Although schools cannot promote religion by reading the bible or other religiously affiliated documents in schools, this does not mean that all reference to religion is unconstitutional. For example, it is perfectly appropriate for a religious concept to be discussed academically as it applies to a historical document as long as the purpose of the discussion is to help the students understand history and not to preach. As long as the practice in question meets the three prongs of the test provided in the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, it is constitutional, according to the most recent rulings of the United States Supreme Court.


Kelly Ann Christensen from Overland Park, Johnson County, Kansas on August 24, 2019:

This looks like a fabulous hub, kbdressman. I'm going to have to bookmark it for when I have time to read it more thoroughly.

kbdressman (author) from Clinton Township, Michigan on August 14, 2015:

Bodylevive, is this a public school? I hope it turns out well for them and they don't have any legal issues over the matter!

BODYLEVIVE from Alabama, USA on August 14, 2015:

I can say one thing about my granddaughter's school, they still pray and pledge allegiance to the flag. The principal say if praying offends anyone, the need to attend to a different school and I agree with that.

Swadhin Kumar Dash on June 09, 2015:

Thanks Mr kbdressman for this useful article. The Supreme Court of the USA is always watchful and alert in protecting the constitution. Regarding religion, I would say only one thing - let religion be a private affair. In this age of enlightenment brought to us by science and technology, religion has almost been relegated to the realm of superstitions. The atheists have shown us that one can be a good person without having to believe in a faith. Let our morality come from a rational mind and not from a religious faith.

Sanxuary on June 06, 2015:

If it comes to choice and free will then being a secular society should allow choice and classes on faith or religion. Sadly those who do not belief in choice has made such ideas a very dangerous World. In any argument belief requires an individual choice that one can not force a belief on anyone to attain a true spiritual connection to God and attain any goals in heaven. Sometimes I just want to say, you our on Earth stupid You can only attain things in Heaven by avoiding everything that is Earthly.

Steven Miller from Ohio Great City of Dayton on June 01, 2015:

The first line of this Hub states it all nothing more is to be said! Excellent article if only we as Americans would enforce our constitution we might truly be safe. People do not even know what safe is anymore.

Our government has funded the Islamic State and now created Isis to destabilize the west. The problem is we live in the West! Now these tyrannical powers are soon to be at your backdoor.

People are starting to wake up, however, the internet "shill's" are out in full force. I am getting slammed here and on my YouTube channel. So if your a truth fighter you can check out my content.

Up and following hopefully you follow suit. We must unite to regain the foothold on our country so we can then maintain the ground to fight them back into the sea where they came from. They never quit after the War of 1812! Good stuff keep up the age old fight!

Ashley Ferguson from Indiana/Chicagoland on June 01, 2015:

Great Hub! I see it perfectly appropriate for religious STUDIES to be conducted in a public school, but I do not see a need to "burn the books" as they do pertain to history. All religions created our history as a planet, and sometimes it offends people that history went this way or that way, but if that's what historians discover, then it should be read that way. I believe in the separation of church and state, and since science has been turned into a religion, that needs to go into the religious studies group... Which COULD be elective in high school and college. I believe in science, don't get me wrong, but I believe that a "God" created science, being as it has yet to be fully discovered. It would be nice if science could be left at the periodic table and medication being labeled as "working" or "not working. Thanks for sharing. :) What we believe isn't on the line; the truth needs to be discovered, there's no doubt in that. There has to be a way to keep church and state separate while still providing the education. Thanks for sharing. :)

kbdressman (author) from Clinton Township, Michigan on May 31, 2015:

hoov45, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I think it's important to discuss the basics of all religions in the classroom so that the next generation is educated and has a deeper understanding of human relations. It's becoming more and more apparent to me as I study to become a doctor that I need to understand as many views as I can so I can be someone's science based health/wellness coach, and find treatments that fit their beliefs the best. I think that mentality will help me help people that other doctors may not be able to help. I also think this same idea applies to lots of different careers and to politics and citizenship in general! However, it is a basic human right to believe what you will. Schools must avoid even the appearance of trying to convert children, in order to protect that right. It's sad sometimes, but it's important.

kbdressman (author) from Clinton Township, Michigan on May 31, 2015:

Firstcookbooklady, I think that you make an excellent argument for how important it is to use all different subject matters to teach religion and related religious principles to the world around us in the home. For example, Genesis 1:11 discusses genetics when I read it. I really love making these kinds of connections between secular and religious topics. Christ said all things testified of Him and it's true!

Sinha from Calcutta on May 30, 2015:

Yes Mam, being a Biology student, if i want to make myself believe of the Virgin Birth of Christ, then the Ancient Alien Theory is the most appropriate I guess :D. Anyways, I get your point. Thanks for the reply. :)

Char Milbrett from Minnesota on May 30, 2015:

Souradipsinha... you're a biology student... and biology is concerned with human beginnings and cells and 'all that stuff' concerned with getting a new life going... well: it seems appropriate to discuss how Jesus didn't have the mixings of the same kind as us... he wasn't conceived through the procedure of having sex... he was 'put there' by an external being... Therefore, the logicalness of it... I would have loved to have heard the speech, although I may have stood in my chair and shouted at him... [smile]

Sinha from Calcutta on May 29, 2015:

Nice article. I am an Indian. Though we say proudly that we are a secular country, there are loads of hypocrisy everywhere in our Indian society. The College where I study is a State aided Christian minority college. It is one of the best in Calcutta. It hosts frequent prayer sessions and other religion related assemblies for the students (Who are Christian). The funny thing is that, most of our Christian friends find it annoying and boring to join those sessions regularly. One day, the Rector of our College (our respected former Principal) was even giving a speech to all the students of the College trying to "logically prove" the "Virgin birth of Jesus Christ". Though i respect the religious sentiments but neither is the College a place for such discussions nor is such a topic to be discussed in front of Biology Hons students. Isn't it? :)

Hypchristian on May 29, 2015:

Fantastic article. Every day I see people petitioning for religion to be taught in schools in the U.S. I'm Canadian, and you'd never see such a thing in a public school. In fact, the last politician who openly stated that the world is 6,000 years old at a political event got laughed right out of his position as party leader. Stockwell Day was his name. If Christians are so keen to force the Bible into schools, then they had better be ready to allow the Quran, the Torah and other religious texts to have equal share. It's all or nothing. Of course, Christians won't have that, because their God is the real God based on evidence such, because they say so.

Terry Hoover from Denham Springs, Louisiana on May 29, 2015:

This article was most informative and well written on an important topic. As a middle school teacher, I found it useful. Thanks

Krzysztof Willman from Parlin, New Jersey on May 27, 2015:

I also believe there needs to be a separation because you start crossing constitutional boundaries that shouldn't have been crossed in the first place. Some of the arguments people make against this are really mind blowing and make me strongly question their intelligence.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on May 27, 2015:

I'm strongly in favor of keeping church and state separate. If people want their child to study religion in school then they need to send them to parochial schools or ask their church to set up after-school indoctrination sessions for their children.

kbdressman (author) from Clinton Township, Michigan on May 23, 2015:

Oh my goodness, firstcookbooklady! That article is absolutely frightening. The title is amazingly ironic and there are so many half truths mixed in with negatively spun whole truths and complete lies that I'm sure all sorts of ignorant readers believed most of what was written. I think you're exactly right about their desire to control us. None of them wanted to understand, agree to disagree or find solutions to "problems." They just wanted to be right. Do people inappropriately apply the bible occasionally? Yes. But, for pity's sake, that should be a call for MORE education on the bible...not less!

Char Milbrett from Minnesota on May 22, 2015: I just read this article and I was tempted to comment. Many of the commenters just started arguments with previous commenters. -- My personal opinion? Well. Most of those people do not know who you or I are. Nor do they care who we are. However, they think they want to control us, even if they don't know us. If they passed us on the street, I can guarantee there would be no "Hi, how are you!", but my assumption is that they not even glance in our direction.

kbdressman (author) from Clinton Township, Michigan on May 22, 2015:

You're exactly right, firstcookbooklady! I just wrote a 28 page paper on why it was un-American and detrimental to the development of healthy adults to prohibit use of religious texts in schools. I read through hundreds of American documents in the process and compiled a list of more than 50 documents that have religious references in them. Taking these documents out of history would remove some of the most important parts of our history. (like the Declaration of Independence, most wars, the civil rights movement, etc.) I strongly believe that failing to explain the religious concepts in these documents in public education is a grievous disservice to American citizens. And, that's just looking at the bible as a historical document. It applies to other subjects, such as English, as well!

Char Milbrett from Minnesota on May 22, 2015:

it is perfectly appropriate for a religious concept to be discussed academically as it applies to a historical document as long as the purpose of the discussion is to help the students understand history and not to preach -- I agree -- the bible is a historical document. Two parts. Old Testament and New Testament. The New Testament clearly states that you must know the details of the old Testament, but must follow the NEW Testament.

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