First Amendment topicsAbout the First Amendment
School prayer is already protected — no amendment needed
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Voters beware. A grassroots campaign is now under way to persuade your local government to endorse a confusing and misleading “school prayer” amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The campaign started in Washington County, Pa., and has spread to counties and cities throughout the nation. So far some 30 local governments have called for Congress to pass the amendment, according to news reports.

Don’t be fooled. Supporters claim that they just want to give kids the right to pray. But if that’s all they want to do, we don’t need to amend the First Amendment. Under current law, students have the right to pray in public schools, alone or in groups, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

The real agenda behind this effort is to return to the days of organized prayer in public schools. And the impact of the amendment would be to allow students or adults to impose their religion on others in a school setting.

At first blush, the wording of the amendment — introduced by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla. — sounds innocuous enough:

“To secure the people’s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and other traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The United States and the States shall not compose school prayers, nor require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity.”

But take a closer look. Does the “people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs” in schools mean that students, teachers, or even outside adults have the right to pray at school events or set up religious displays in the school lobby? It would seem so.

As long as the prayer isn’t composed by the government (and people can opt-out), the amendment would appear to allow anyone and everyone — Christians, Hindus, Wiccans and so forth — to promote their religion in front of a captive audience of young, impressionable children.

If you’re worried about religious conflict now, just wait until this amendment passes.

Maybe the drafters of the amendment imagine that only prayers they find “acceptable” will be prayed at school events. But the wording of the amendment would open school events and property to religious expression of all varieties. (Not surprisingly, the amendment’s sponsors are unconcerned about the rights of non-believers.)

The Istook amendment appeals to people who (mistakenly) believe that the Supreme Court has “kicked God out” of the public square and the public schools.

But last time I looked, Billy Graham (or his son) was still praying at the presidential inauguration. And kids were still praying before math tests.

Which would you rather have?

Under the Istook amendment, we could have rotating prayers from scores of religious groups in public school classrooms every morning. We might also see religious displays of all kinds in the school lobby and adults from religious groups handing our literature to kids in the hallways. The Ten Commandments might be posted in all classes, but so would passages from the Gita, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, and many other scriptures. The Istook amendment would appear to mandate that the “people’s right” to do all of this in a public school couldn’t be infringed.

Or would you rather have what is currently permitted under the First Amendment? Right now in public schools across the nation, students are praying around the flagpole before school, forming religious clubs in high schools, sharing their faith with classmates, giving out religious literature in school (subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions), giving their religious views in class assignments, and gathering to pray between classes and at mealtime.

Here’s the difference.

The Istook amendment appears to open the door to organized prayers and to religious activities and messages of all kinds before captive audiences of kids in public schools.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom. Freedom to pray, as long as the rights of others aren’t violated. Freedom to attend school without having any religion imposed on you. And freedom from government involvement in religion.

Tell your city council or county commission to think carefully about this difference before they vote to ask Congress to amend the First Amendment.

And if you’re really concerned about the religious-liberty rights of students in the public school, urge your school board to adopt policies that guard all of the rights that are already guaranteed under the First Amendment.

The First Amendment has served us well for more than 200 years. It doesn’t need amending.

When I spell-checked this article, the computer instructed me to change “Istook” to “mistook.” Exactly.


Federal appeals court reinstates Texas prayer case

Lawsuit claims school district had no right to prevent student from leading prayer before football games. 04.15.02

State attorney general: Flagpole prayers protected by First Amendment
Bill Pryor says he sent memo to Alabama's school superintendents to avoid any confusion over rights of students to hold upcoming prayer meetings. 09.05.02

Bill to allow school proselytizing sails through Virginia House panel
Legislation would open all public property to preaching, praying; also would ban same-sex marriage. 02.07.05

Arkansas House approves school-prayer bill
ACLU attorney warns bill is probably unconstitutional under U.S. Supreme Court rulings. 04.11.05

Sen. Byrd introduces amendment allowing school prayer
Critic points out that voluntary prayer is already allowed in public schools, making constitutional amendment unnecessary. 04.30.06

Educators could aid understanding of religion, experts say
Conference at First Amendment Center explores ways to prevent conflicts in public schools as student religious expression increases. 03.07.07

Ky. GOP candidates argue over who supports school prayer more
Gov. Ernie Fletcher says Anne Northup voted against prayer in school; Northup says she supports prayer but not if it's led by teachers. 05.15.07

Pray or meditate, but keep school officials out of it
By Charles C. Haynes More than 40 years after the Supreme Court said the First Amendment prohibits state-sponsored religion in public schools, many school officials still don’t know what that means. 10.29.06

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