School Prayer Continues to Raise Controversy

As the new school year begins, the New American reports that some public schools are facing demands to remove prayer from school-sponsored events. Though after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Santa Fe School District v. Doe prayer at school-sponsored events is sometimes unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (see 530 U.S. 290 (2000)) some districts continue to incorporate prayer into events like the first day of school, football games, and graduations.   Most recently, on August 18 the superintendent of the DeSoto County, Mississippi, school district received a letter requesting that district schools remove prayers from school-sponsored events. By August 23 the district complied and announced via a press release that the school board voted to ban prayers at future sporting games.

Groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), under the leadership of spokeswoman Annie Laurie Gaylor, are pressuring schools to comply with the law and remove prayers from school-sponsored events.  The FFRF succeeded in curbing the school prayer in Tennessee and Kentucky, but Gaylor remains troubled that school officials allow prayer to continue despite knowing these actions violate the law.  Many communities and groups such as the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), however, encourage the schools to continue to incorporate prayer into events—asserting school employees should be able to exercise their right to organize and privately practice religion in a personal capacity.

It’s fascinating that, more than ten years after Santa Fe School District, school officials continue to sponsor prayers at school events. (see Brendan Brassil, Back on the Books: The Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act, 16 Pub. Int. L. Rep. 114 (2011)). The schools mentioned in the article delayed complying with the law until receiving communications from external groups upset by their actions. Despite the Supreme Court ruling on this issue, communities and school officials seem to ignore the Court’s ruling and continue to incorporate prayer into the typical school day. I am curious if many schools will face similar challenges in the upcoming school year and how communities will react to the removal of prayers from local school-sponsored events. – JKH

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