Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Upon recommendation of the state governing board, a local New York school required each class to begin each school day by reading aloud the following prayer in the presence of the teacher:
Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessing upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Students who wished to do so could remain silent or leave the room. The Court wrote:
We think that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity. . . . [W]e think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government. 1
Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause, as it might from the Free Exercise Clause. . . . The Establishment Clause . . . does not depend upon any showing of direct governmental compulsion and is violated by the enactment of laws which establish an official religion whether those laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not. 2
Following the prayer decision came two cases in which parents and their school age children challenged the validity under the Establishment Clause of requirements that each school day begin with readings of selections from the Bible. Scripture reading, like prayers, the Court found, was a religious exercise.
Given that finding the exercises and the law requiring them are in violation of the Establishment Clause. 3 Rejected were contentions by the state that the object of the programs was the promotion of secular purposes, such as the expounding of moral values, the contradiction of the materialistic trends of the times, the perpetuation of traditional institutions, and the teaching of literature 4 and that to forbid the particular exercises was to choose a
religion of secularism in their place. 5 Though the
place of religion in our society is an exalted one, the Establishment Clause, the Court continued, prescribed that in
the relationship between man and religion, the state must be
firmly committed to a position of neutrality. 6
In Wallace v. Jaffree, 7 the Court held invalid an Alabama statute authorizing a 1-minute period of silence in all public schools
for meditation or prayer. Because the only evidence in the record indicated that the words
or prayer had been added to the existing statute by amendment for the sole purpose of returning voluntary prayer to the public schools, the Court found that the first prong of the Lemon test had been violated, i.e., that the statute was invalid as being entirely motivated by a purpose of advancing religion. The Court characterized the legislative intent to return prayer to the public schools as
quite different from merely protecting every student’s right to engage in voluntary prayer during an appropriate moment of silence during the schoolday, 8 and both Justices Powell and O’Connor in concurring opinions suggested that other state statutes authorizing moments of silence might pass constitutional muster. 9
The school prayer decisions served as precedent for the Court’s holding in Lee v. Weisman 10 that a school-sponsored invocation at a high school commencement violated the Establishment Clause. The Court rebuffed a request to reexamine the Lemon test, finding
[t]he government involvement with religious activity in this case [to be] pervasive, to the point of creating a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school. State officials not only determined that an invocation and benediction should be given, but also selected the religious participant and provided him with guidelines for the content of nonsectarian prayers. The Court, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, viewed this state participation as coercive in the elementary and secondary school setting. 11 The state
in effect required participation in a religious exercise, since the option of not attending
one of life’s most significant occasions was no real choice.
At a minimum, the Court concluded, the Establishment Clause
guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.
In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe 12 the Court held a school district's policy permitting high school students to vote on whether to have an
invocation and/or prayer delivered prior to home football games by a student elected for that purpose to violate the Establishment Clause. It found the policy to violate each of the tests it has formulated for Establishment Clause cases. The preference given for an
invocation in the text of the school district’s policy, the long history of pre-game prayer led by a student
chaplain in the school district, and the widespread perception that
the policy is about prayer, the Court said, made clear that its purpose was not secular but was to preserve a popular state-sponsored religious practice in violation of the first prong of the Lemon test. Moreover, it said, the policy violated the coercion test by forcing unwilling students into participating in a religious exercise. Some students – the cheerleaders, the band, football players – had to attend, it noted, and others were compelled to do so by peer pressure.
The constitutional command will not permit the District 'to exact religious conformity from a student as the price' of joining her classmates at a varsity football game, the Court held. 13 Finally, it said, the speech sanctioned by the policy was not private speech but government-sponsored speech that would be perceived as a government endorsement of religion. The long history of pre-game prayer, the bias toward religion in the policy itself, the fact that the message would be
delivered to a large audience assembled as part of a regularly scheduled, school-sponsored function conducted on school property 14 and over the school's public address system, the Court asserted, all meant that the speech was not genuine private speech but would be perceived as
stamped with [the] school’s seal of approval. 15 The Court concluded that
[t]he policy is invalid on its face because it establishes an improper majoritarian election on religion, and unquestionably has the purpose and creates the perception of encouraging the delivery of prayer at a series of important school events. 16