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Do You Have a Prayer?

Level: Advanced

Do you know whether students may pray before their meals in the school cafeteria or read from the Bible during sustained silent reading? Does your school have to provide Muslim students a place to pray? Why do many schools no longer hold the baccalaureate service on school grounds? Administrators, teachers, parents and students need to know what religious expression may or may not be allowed during the school day. Students do have the right to express religious beliefs while at school as long as they don’t coerce others or interfere with the educational process. But school officials must be careful not to sponsor religious activity. Unless these issues are handled properly, communities can easily become divided and confused about the role of religion in their public schools. For more than 200 years, the First Amendment has protected religious freedom, including the right not to believe. This includes religious expression by students in public schools. As we begin our third century under the Constitution, Americans of many faiths — and a growing number who express no religious preference — must learn to live together in a diverse society. Thus the Religious Liberty clauses of the First Amendment are at the heart of what it means to be an American citizen. This lesson focuses on the Equal Access Act and a Supreme Court case involving the meeting of extracurricular religious clubs on school property.

  • The federal Equal Access Act provided if public schools receiving federal funds allowed student clubs not curriculum-related to organize and meet on school grounds, they could not prohibit student-initiated clubs with religious content or viewpoint.
  • Board of Education of Westside Schools v. Mergens, took place in 1990. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the federal Equal Access Act.

Key Concepts

  • Religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, is a basic and inalienable right founded on the inviolable dignity of the person. The Supreme Court has interpreted “free exercise” to mean that any individual may believe anything he or she wants, but there may be times when the state can limit or interfere with practices that flow from those beliefs. Public schools, as extensions of the government, may neither promote nor prohibit religious belief or nonbelief. Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers as long as they are not disruptive. The right to engage in voluntary prayer does not include the right to have a captive audience for that prayer or to compel other students to participate.
  • Public schools must work for fairness to protect the freedom of conscience of every student and parent.

U.S. History, Civics

First Principles
Go to this curriculum’s First Principles. The First Principles document was developed to explain in practical, everyday terms just what the First Amendment means.Read the explanations to the principles listed below. They have special relevance to the activities in this lesson.

  • The First Amendment affirms the freedom of the individual. The First Amendment tells the government to keep its “hands off” our religion, our ideas, our ability to express ourselves.
  • Other people have rights, too.

First Moments
Share with students this scene:
As students and staff arrived early one September morning, the red, white and blue of Old Glory and the state flag barely moved in the light breeze. Below them, students, hand in hand, formed a circle around the poles. Their heads were bowed in prayer.students arrived in first period class, several expressed concern over seeing prayer take place on school grounds in public view. Others asked, “Why are they allowed to do that?”Have your students answer the question: May students meet at the flag pole on school grounds for prayer? Ask students to elaborate on their responses.The Supreme Court has not declared the public schools “religion-free zones.” The Constitution permits much private religious activity. Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers as long as they are not disruptive. Student participation in before- or after-school events, such as See You at the Pole is permissible. School officials, acting in an official capacity, may neither discourage nor encourage participation in such an event. (Source: Religion in The Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law)


  1. Constitutional Background
    Explain to students that this lesson will focus on issues related to prayer and religious groups meeting on school grounds.

    Review the two clauses of the First Amendment that deal with freedom of religion. You may wish to use lessons provided by the First Amendment Center: What’s the (No) Establishment Clause? focuses on the Establishment Clause and You Are Free to Exercise focuses on the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause says that the government (including public schools) cannot support any one religion. Justice Hugo Black, author of the majority opinion in Engel v. Vitale (1962), reminded his readers that the Establishment Clause rests upon the belief that “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.” As stated in the Williamsburg Charter, “The No Establishment clause separates Church from State but not religion from politics or public life. It prevents the confusion of religion and government which has been a leading source of repression and coercion throughout history.”

    The Free Exercise Clause protects people’s right to practice or change their chosen religion (or to practice no religion at all).

    The Equal Access Act
    Distribute and read “Equal Access Act.” Discuss the main points of the Equal Access Act with your students. Divide students into groups to determine how the Equal Access Act applies to your school. What clubs are allowed to meet at your school? If religious clubs meet on your campus, are they student-led? The Equal Access Act applies to secondary schools that receive Federal financial assistance in which a limited open forum has been established. A limited open forum exists whenever a public secondary school allows one or more non-curriculum related student groups to meet on school grounds during non-instructional time, according to U.S. Code, Title 20, Section 4071. The Equal Access Act does not give students the right to pray before a captive audience at school events.

    Religious Clubs in Public Schools: Westside v. Mergens — 1990 Distribute and read Westside v. Mergens Students are to write individual responses to the questions after the material is read aloud or silently. Compare individual responses in a class discussion.

    Give students the Religious Expression in Public Schools true/false quiz.

    Ask students to determine if their school is a limited open forum. According to the Equal Access Act, “a public secondary school has a limited open forum, [when a school allows] an offering to or opportunity for one or more non-curriculum related student groups to meet on school premises during non-instructional time.” Chess, model building, political, religious and many similar types of clubs are considered to be non-curriculum based. A French club might be considered to be curriculum related. If your school is a limited open forum, what are the benefits and drawbacks? What student clubs are allowed within a limited open forum environment? If your school does not have a limited open forum, would you want to create one?

  2. Divide the class into ten groups. Each group should be assigned one of the Religious Expression in Public Schools true/false quiz questions. Students are to become experts on their question, knowing the background and why the answer is what it is. Arrange for the class to make a presentation to the student government officers, club council , the PTSA or another group within your school. Students could give the true/false quiz, then go over answers.


  1. Investigate your school’s practices with regard to freedom of religion. Analyze these practices in the context of the First Amendment. What different interests and needs in your school and your community should be addressed?

    Research the moment-of-silence movement in public schools in your state or the nation since the 1985 Supreme Court decision in Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985). The Supreme Court found an Alabama statute authorizing a one-minute period of silence in all public schools “for meditation or voluntary prayer” to be unconstitutional. This is a complex case involving the intent of the Alabama legislature. The Court stated that the purpose of the statute “was to endorse religion” and “the legislation was solely an effort to return voluntary prayer to the public schools.” Government must “pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion.”

  2. Study Good News Club et al v. Milford Central School (2001). The Court ruled that the school district’s exclusion of the Good News Club, a private Christian organization, from meeting after school hours in the elementary school building did violate the free speech rights of the club and that no Establishment Clause concerns of the school justified that violation. Distribute and read the case summary of Good News Club et. al. v. Milford Central School. Students are to write individual responses to the questions after the material is read aloud or silently. Compare individual responses in a class discussion.



Abington Township v. Schempp (1963)
Did the Pennsylvania law and Abington's policy, requiring public school students to participate in classroom religious exercises, violate the religious freedom of students as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?

Engel v. Vitale (1962)
Does the reading of a nondenominational prayer at the start of the school day violate the "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment?

Board of Education of Westside Schools v. Mergens (1990)
Was Westside's prohibition against the formation of a Christian club consistent with the Establishment Clause, thereby rendering the Equal Access Act unconstitutional?

Good News Club et al v. Milford Central School (2001)
When Milford Central School did not grant the Good News Club, a private Christian organization for children ages 6-10, permission to meet after school hours at the school, did it violate the club’s free speech rights?

Christian Legal Society
Members of the Christian Legal Society have been involved with the Equal Access Act since its inception. Online information about their litigation, legislative advocacy and public education to protect religious liberty of all Americans is found in the Center for Law and Religious Freedom section.

Finding Common Ground
Online version of Finding Common Ground, Charles Haynes’ First Amendment guide to religion and public education. Print version is available through Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. This guide includes copies of the Equal Access Act, a Q and A on the Equal Access Act and the DOE Religious Expression in Public Schools.

A Parent’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools
Questions and answers cover 13 topics, including student prayer, religious clubs and religious holidays. Print copy of this publication available through the First Amendment Center.

Constitutional Amendment on School Prayer or Moment of Silence
ACLU response to an amendment to the U.S. Constitution "relating to voluntary school prayer” is provided by the ACLU's Freedom Network.

Prayer in U.S. Public Schools
Includes what the U.S. Constitution does and does not allow, landmark court decisions, and more.

Virginia student takes stand against silence
Commentary by Charles Haynes on the law passed in 2000 by Virginia legislators requiring a daily minute of silence in classrooms.

Divided federal appeals panel upholds Virginia minute-of-silence law
Associated Press article announcing 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Brown v. Gilmore.


One Nation Under God? School Prayer and the First Amendment Close Up Foundation, 24 minutes, 1995. Teacher’s guide included. Video features individuals involved in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)

In Print

Colby, Kimberlee Wood. A Guide to the Equal Access Act.
A brief review of the Equal Access Act, with emphasis on the 1990 Supreme Court case. Available through Christian Legal Society.

Haynes, Charles. Teaching About Religion in American Life: A First Amendment Guide. 1999.A teacher’s guide to use of the new Oxford University Press reference series, Religion in American Life.

National Standards
United States History, Standard 4: Understands how political, religious, and social institutions emerged in the English colonies.United States History, Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.Civics, Standard 8: Understands the central ideas of American constitutional government and how this form of government has shaped the character of American society.Civics, Standard 25: Understands issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights.Civics Standard 26: Understands issues regarding the proper scope and limits of rights and the relationships among personal, political, and economic rights.

United States History, Standard 4, Grades 7-8: Understands the role of religion in the English colonies (e.g., the evolution of religious freedom, treatment of religious dissenters such as Anne Hutchison, the concept of the separation of church and state.)

United States History, Standard 31: Grades 7-8: Understands the growth of religious issues in contemporary society (e.g., the growth of the Christian evangelical movement and its use of modern telecommunications, issues regarding the guarantee of no establishment of religion and the free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, the significance of religious groups in local communities and their approaches to social issues); Grades 9-12: Understands how the rise of religious groups and movements influenced political issues in contemporary American society; how Supreme Court decisions since 1968 have affected the meaning and practice of religious freedom.

Civics, Standard 8, Grades 6-8: Knows opposing positions on current issues involving constitutional protection of individual rights such as limits on speech (e.g., "hate speech," advertising), separation of church and state (e.g., school vouchers, prayer in public schools), cruel and unusual punishment (e.g., death penalty), search and seizure (e.g., warrantless searches), and privacy (e.g., national identification cards, wiretapping); Grades 9-12: Knows the major ideas about republican government that influenced the development of the United States Constitution (e.g., the concept of representative government, the importance of civic virtue or concern for the common good).

Civics, Standard 25, Grades 6-8: Knows what constitutes personal rights; Grades 6-8: Understands the importance to individuals and society of such personal rights as freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of expression and association, freedom of movement and residence, and privacy; Grades 9-12: Understands the importance to individuals and to society of personal rights such as freedom of thought and conscience, privacy and personal autonomy, and the right to due process of law and equal protection of the law.

Civics, Standard 26, Grades 6-8: Understands what is meant by the "scope and limits" of a right; Grades 6-8: Understands the argument that all rights have limits, and knows criteria commonly used in determining what limits should be placed on specific rights (e.g., clear and present danger rule, compelling government interest test, national security, libel or slander, public safety, equal opportunity); Grades 6-8: Understands different positions on a contemporary conflict between rights (e.g., right of a fair trial and right to a free press; right to privacy and right to freedom of expression); Grades 9-12: Understands different positions on a contemporary conflict between rights such as one person's right to free speech versus another person's right to be heard.

This lesson is part of Education for Freedom: Lesson Plans for Teaching the First Amendment and is provided by the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan center dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of the values of the First Amendment.

Last updated: Thursday, February 11, 2016 | 07:59:19