WASHINGTON Under threat of losing federal money, the nation's public schools must declare that they allow prayer wherever and however the Constitution permits, and the vast majority are doing so.
For the first time, federal law requires school districts to prove that they have no policy stifling court-protected prayer by students or teachers, or any policy promoting religion. Those that don't comply risk losing a share of elementary and secondary school money totaling $23 billion.
Initial responses, due April 15, showed some states had dozens of schools out of compliance; other states failed to reply at all.
But leaders in those states say paperwork problems, not trouble over prayer policies, accounted for the delay. Most of the more than 15,000 school districts have since certified they follow the law, and federal officials seem content the states have shown good faith.
"We're not at the point where we're talking about taking funding away from schools or states," said Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey. "The goal all along has been to make sure local school districts do not have any policies in place that sanction religion or policies that prohibit voluntary religious expression by students."
Generally, prayer is permitted provided it happens outside of class instruction and is not initiated by school officials, federal guidelines say. As examples, students may pray during recess and teachers may hold their own Bible study at lunch. But teachers may not lead their classes in prayer or try to persuade students to join religious activities.
As of May 9, 42 states had certified that all of their schools follow the law.
Five states Arizona, California, Ohio, Illinois and New York combined showed 150 to 200 school districts out of compliance. All those states expect the number to be zero soon.
Indiana, Nevada and New Hampshire haven't reported, but assure federal officials they expect to send clean reports soon. District of Columbia officials have not responded.
The prospect of lost money was not lost on the schools.
North Carolina got the last of its certifications on May 9. "When we sent them a letter and said, 'We're going to freeze your money if you don't get it in,' I think expectation was that they would respond," said William McGrady, an official with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
California, a state of more than 1,200 districts, listed 133 out of compliance by the April deadline. It has dropped that number to 55, all of which expect to reply soon, said Larry Jaurequi, an assistant superintendent with the state's education department.
"None of them are saying, 'Look, we're not going to comply,'" Jaurequi said. "There hasn't been anything that would indicate some sort of opposition view."
The process of checking in with every school has prompted grumbles from state leaders about lost time and money. Ohio, for example, said it had spent more than $500,000 on the effort.
Defenders of church-state separation and advocates of religious expression both say they are wary about how meaningful the schools' written promises will be.
The state responses are encouraging, but assessing whether they're accurate is the next step, said Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel. The group defends free expression, including religion, in public schools. Common complaints include students being prevented from organizing prayer groups or posting announcements about Bible study, Staver said.
"Some of these schools have probably represented they're in compliance when they're not," Staver said. "If they were, we wouldn't be getting the kind of calls we're getting."
The states generally certified they had no policy that prevents participation in "constitutionally protected prayer."
That's significant because it means they must follow court mandates but not necessarily the guidance issued in February by the Bush administration, said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Lynn contends those guidelines cross into unconstitutional expression, such as the allowing of religious graduation speeches provided speakers were chosen on neutral criteria.
For the next school year, the Education Department is working with states to smooth reporting. Aspey, the agency spokeswoman, acknowledged some glitches. For example, at least 26 states failed to note whether their districts had any prayer-related complaints pending.
"This is the first time for everyone," Aspey said. "There are going to be some growing pains."