By Mario Gonzalez, Esq.
For more, visit www.gonzlawgroup.com
Contrary to myths spread by the legally misinformed, the Supreme Court has not ruled that students are forbidden to pray, read a religious book, or otherwise worship on their own while at school.
In Engle v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) the Supreme Court simply concluded that officially conducted prayer, promulgated in this case by the Board of Regents in New York, violated the Establishment Clause. Similarly, in a subsequent Supreme Court ruling the following year involving school prayer and Bible reading, School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), the Court decided that opening exercises promoting either the reading of the Bible or recitation of the Lord's Prayer in a public school violated the Establishment Clause as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.
That said, it is critically important to point out to legally uninformed school officials that these decisions of the Supreme Court did not "remove prayer [or other religious observances] from public schools." The Supreme Court simply and exclusively removed only government-sponsored worship from the public schools, as is expressly outlined in the Court’s rulings in both cases. Public school students have always had and still possess the right to pray, read the Bible, or worship on their own while attending a public school as class schedules permit.
Conversely, a public school official’s interference with such private religious observances would constitute an impermissible intrusion into religion by the state and would thereby violate the student’s First Amendment rights. Officially interfering in any manner with an individual’s non-disruptive religious observance, even within a public school environment, is proscribed by the U.S. Constitution. This would include interfering with such activities as quietly praying, reading the Bible, worshiping, or even outright proselytizing during a scheduled break time or even during class time when objectively appropriate due to the subject matter being discussed. Public School officials, including teachers cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination, even if the viewpoint in question is inherently religious.
I hope this information will help many of you in defending your particular student’s constitutionally protected rights.