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School prayer: 50 years after the ban, God and faith more present than ever

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Schools struck religion from curricula, teachers avoided the topic, and children got the message that religion took place off campus. But then, Professor Deckman explains, people began "to say, 'Look, religion is part of who we are and our culture.' "

Yes, the rulings restricted public school employees – but what about students? Could they say grace in the cafeteria or meet outside class to study the Bible, Quran, or Torah? Could religious organizations offer after-school programs? While teachers couldn't preach, could they address religion academically?

In court case after court case, the answer was a resounding "yes."

Granted, courts haven't always agreed. Reflecting regional attitudes, a court in Ohio deemed it legal for a student to wear a T-shirt sporting a Christian slogan critical of homosexuality while, in a similar case in California, a court ruled against the student. Similarly, says Charles J. Russo, who teaches law and theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio, US circuit courts have disagreed over the constitutionality of a student leading prayers at public school graduations. Federal courts in the West and Northeast ruled it illegal; courts in the South upheld it.

Supreme Court cases, however, hold sway nationwide, and two in particular fueled the growth of religion in public schools. In 1990, the court compelled public high schools to give student-led religious clubs the same access enjoyed by other non-curricular clubs. Then in 2001 the court ruled that elementary schools that welcomed programs such as Girl Scouts could not bar the after-school Good News Club because it was evangelical Christian. That violated the Free Speech Clause.

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