Prayer in Public Schools: History, Law, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Marcia Neely

Marcia Neely is a teacher who holds both a MS degree in Reading & Literacy and a Ed Specialist degree in Curriculum & Instruction.

Prayer in public schools is still a topic that's deliberated today. This lesson takes you through the history, law, pros, and cons of prayer in schools and offers a quiz to test your knowledge on this topic.


In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in two landmark cases related to prayer in public schools: Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963). In the Engel case, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional for school officials to impose an official school prayer and promote its reading in public schools. In the Abington case, the court declared that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional.

Later, in the case of Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), the court would uphold that even 'moments of silence' in public school should not promote regular religious prayer by faculty or students. However, the court also noted that moments of silence are allowable if they are genuinely secular in nature.


Based on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, public schools cannot endorse religious activities, such as prayer. The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion. The first part of this mandate is known as the Establishment Clause, while the second part is known as the Free Exercise Clause. Additionally, the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution extends the protection of rights provided by the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses to all levels of government, including state.

What this amounts to from an educational institution's standpoint is this: The U.S. Constitution protects a student's right to pray in public school, but the prayer must be of the student's own volition, and its expression must be silent and private.

Pros & Cons

Many supporters of school prayer feel that it would benefit society as a whole by promoting ethical behavior, nurturing students' spirits, and strengthening students' morals and values. They contend this would help combat issues like school violence, gun and drug use among children and teens, and teen pregnancy.

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