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Is prayer being supressed in the public schools?

Of the many charges made by the religious right against the public schools, none is as powerful as the claim that school officials are preventing school children from praying. In our e-mail correspondence with readers of this website, for example, we have sometimes been told that school officials have stopped children from praying over their lunch, and that children have been kicked out of their classes for praying silently before a test. Indeed, in some cases these charges have been made in the national media by prominent leaders of the religious right. If true, these charges would be a sad commentary on the state of religious liberty in our schools.

While we don't doubt that there have probably been cases in which school officials have acted overzealously in response to religious activity in the public schools (school officials, after all, are not perfect, and our school system is large enough to invite abuse), it is remarkable how little evidence there is for any suppression of prayer at all, let alone the widespread suppression claimed by some members of the religious right. As we demonstrate elsewhere in this website, nothing in the law requires such suppression. More to the point, the evidence suggests that many alleged cases of suppression have been fabricated by the right, or have been badly taken out of context. Consider the following examples (taken from Robert Boston's Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church and State):

More generally, there is no evidence that there is anything resembling systematic suppression of religious activity anywhere in public schools. When the Christian Coalition proposed its Contract with the American Family, for example, it was able to muster only a handful of examples of arguable suppression of religious activity in the schools, and virtually all of these were resolved on the basis of a simple phone call or visit from legal counsel. In one case the dispute went to court and was resolved in favor of the student. Indeed, If anything, religious activity in the public schools has been growing in recent years. In the last several decades many religious groups have placed increased interest in student evangelism, and have established thousands of prayer and Bible study clubs in the public schools. Such activity is protected, as it should be, by the Equal Access Amendment, which guarantees students the right to form religious clubs to the same extent they have the right to participate in other extra-curricular activities.

In summary, there is no evidence that suppression of religious activity in the public schools is anything more than an extraordinarily rare exception, or that these cases generally go to court, or that they are typically resolved in favor of the school. Students can pray and read the Bible. The law is clear on this point, and we are unable to point to any authority on either side of the issue that thinks otherwise. Religious suppression simply cannot be used as a justification for a school prayer amendment.

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