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Is government supported prayer constitutional?

As we have already demonstrated, the law with respect to school prayer is clear: when organized, supported, or required by the state, school prayer is illegal. Our purpose in this document is to explain in a somewhat more orderly manner why this is the case.

Briefly, state-supported prayer amounts to the establishment of a religious practice. This is true whether the state actually prescribes the prayer to be said, or allows teachers and students to compose the prayer as they see fit. Let's use the famous Engle v. Vitale case to illustrate our argument.

Engle v. Vitale revolved around a New York law that required school officials to publically recite each school day the following prayer, composed by the New York Board of Regents:

The Court ruled, correctly in our opinion, that the New York law violated the First Amendment. Indeed it's difficult to image how the Court could have ruled otherwise. Prayer is, without question, a religious exercise, and when the state requires that a prayer be recited, it is establishing a religious practice. Additionally, it violates free exercise for the state to expose students to prayer against their will, or to force students to absent themselves from the classroom to avoid a prayer they do not want to hear. Finally, we note that, despite the fact that this prayer was written to be as general and non-sectarian as possible, it still establishes religious beliefs, beliefs that surely do not reflect the religious sensibilities of many students. Christians, for example, might justifiably complain that the prayer is not offered in the name of Christ, while polytheists and adherents to new-age religions might have problems with the implied assertion that there is a single God, or that this God is almighty. And non-theists would certainly object to repeating words that imply that they are "dependent" on a God in which they do not believe. No matter how charitably one views the facts of Engle v. Vitale, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Regents' prayer would not be acceptable to many students.

In our e-mail and usenet correspondence we have heard a number of arguments about why prayers of the Engle v. Vitale sort either do not violate the Constitution, or can be made to not violate the Constitution. Let's look at some of the more important of these arguments:

In summary, organized school prayer is unconstitutional for perfectly good reasons. You don't have to be a legal scholar to understand why it's wrong for the state to organize prayer. When the state forces you to pray, it is forcing you to participate in a religious practice. That amounts to establishment of religion, and that's unconstitutional.

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