Prayer  in  Schools
Prayer in Schools
by Jim Hopkins, school board member
image missing In 1962, the Supreme Court held that the Establishment Clause prohibited the recitation of school-sponsored prayer in public schools.  The recent Kennedy v. Bremerton School District Supreme Court decision did not overturn the 1962 decision. But it overruled many legal precedents and opened the door for prayer in public schools by employees.

When the general public hears the phrase "separation of church and state," they tend to interpret it to mean no prayer in public schools.  This is a misassumption because students have been permitted to pray in schools at lunch or most anytime as long as it does not interfere with instruction. In the Tinker decision in 1969, the Supreme Court declared that students "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."  If school employees are not participating, students can also receive religious instruction in school.  For many years, the Lake of the Woods Church sponsored a Good News Club at the Locust Grove Middle School. School employees did not take part, as volunteers from the church administered the club.

The recent Kennedy decision will have little effect on a student's right to pray but is a dramatic change for school employees.  Before the Kennedy decision, most school districts prohibited employee prayer if a student could overhear it.  The reasoning was students are required to attend school, and hearing a prayer by a public school employee was considered a form of coercion. The Kennedy decision rejects the presumption of coercion. In Kennedy, the court reasoned that secondary school students are mature enough to understand that their school allowing someone’s freedom of speech or prayer does not mean the school is endorsing that view, let alone forcing students to participate.

The obvious question is, how will the Kennedy decision affect our schools? The following views are my own and do not represent the opinion of the school board.  I predict the Kennedy decision will have little effect on students in elementary school.  It may have some impact on middle school students.  For example, in the Good News Club, school employees could now participate but not in a leadership role. Middle school coaches may also choose to use prayer as approved in the Kennedy decision.

Almost all court cases concerning prayer in public schools have been at the high school level.  The Kennedy decision wiped out most of the prevailing legal precedents school officials have depended upon for decision-making.  Therefore there is the potential for a significant increase in prayer in our high school, including sporting events and graduation.  We may even be able to return the baccalaureate service to the high school.  For prayer in public schools, the Kennedy decision is a game changer.