School Prayer & Pledge of Allegiance: The Laws

201707.11

Child praying with hands over bookAlthough violating statutes related to school prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance do not lead to an arrest that would require bail bonds, they could bring fines and other penalties should school districts ignore the laws in their state.

Bail bonds are necessary when someone violates a criminal law while civil violations lead to fines and other penalties rather than arrest. Prayer in schools as well as the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance remain controversial throughout the country.

Supreme Court Decisions

Two Supreme Court decisions during the 1960s banned prayers in public schools and courts have strengthened those decisions over the years. By the same token, the Pledge of Allegiance has been supported by the courts since the 1940s, although it must be voluntary, not required, of school children. Despite that decision, lawsuits continue, arguing that the Pledge violates the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment because it contains the words “under God.”

History of Prayer in School

In Colonial America, prayer was common since many of the schools were created by religious organizations. In fact, Bible study was often part of the curriculum for early schools in this country, long after the adoption of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As ethnic and religious identities in America changed with immigration, religious influences were minimized in public schools, but mostly in urban areas. Many rural area schools in the country continued to allow prayer in school. As early as 1910, however, lawsuits challenged religious requirements in public schools under the belief that students should not be forced to practice a faith that was not their own. Starting in 1962, courts ruled that requiring students to begin the day with prayer or Bible reading was unconstitutional as well as ruling against laws that required the posting of religious documents, like the Ten Commandments, in classrooms. In the 1980s, some states allowed schools to have a “moment of silence,” and those have mostly been upheld in courts.

Pledge of Allegiance Controversy

The Pledge of Allegiance first appeared in a national magazine in 1892 and was later modified by Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower to add the words “under God.” Schools throughout the country regularly recite the Pledge as part of the school day. In the 1930s, West Virginia required public school students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge. Members of a religious organization objected and the students who refused to follow the rule were expelled. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled that students could not be forced to recite the Pledge. This has not stopped continued lawsuits related to the reciting of the Pledge, however. In 2004, the Supreme Court agreed to review a case which involved the constitutionality of the Pledge. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the Pledge but on procedural grounds.

State Regulations

There have been several state rulings related to prayer in school or the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. A student in Alabama filed suit against a Walker County school when he was punished for raising his fist during the Pledge. The case was remanded for further review by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Devalls Bluff School District practice of opening teacher meetings with a prayer violated the Constitution. Indian River School District in Delaware was challenged because they started school board meetings with a prayer but a federal district court ruled it was constitutional, however, the same challenge to a Tangipahoa Parish School District’s similar practice was found to be unconstitutional. Jacksonville Public School Board in Florida has faced many challenges for allowing prayer at graduation while the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled that the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer at graduation did not violate a student’s rights. In 2002, Pennsylvania required all public, private and parochial school students to recite the Pledge, but the Third Circuit ruled that the statute was unconstitutional. A case in Texas claiming the Pledge was unconstitutional was dismissed while, in Virginia, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that requiring the Pledge daily but making it voluntary, was not unconstitutional.

Although most schools have eliminated prayer requirements, courts have consistently ruled that requiring voluntary reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance is not a violation of the Constitution. There will more than likely be continued challenges to this decision, but currently students can be asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.