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This question asks about US Supreme Court cases involving organized religion and prayer in the public schools, a practice the Court has held is unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause, which holds the government cannot promote religion. Public schools are considered government agents because they receive federal funds; therefore, they are bound by the same constitutional limitations as the state and federal governments. Private schools that do not receive money from the US government are under no such restriction and can conduct organized prayer without fear of intervention.

It is important to note these Supreme Court decisions relate only to organized prayer in public schools. Individuals are free to pray privately, but not to impose their religious beliefs or the exercise of any religion on others.

The Supreme Court made their position clearer in Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753, 760 (1995) when they wrote: "...private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression." The key word in this statement is private.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

Engel v. Vitale (1962) was the first US Supreme Court case that held organized prayer in public school is a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from promoting or establishing religion. The Court held that a New York school district's policy requiring students to recite a prayer at the beginning of each day violated some students religious traditions. They ruled the New York state law that allowed school districts to create this policy was unconstitutional.

Case Citation:

Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)

During the 1963 Term, the Court attempted to clarify the Engel v. Vitale, (1962) decision by tackling another case regarding school prayer, Abington Township v. Schempp, (1963), in order to address points that raised protests from certain members of the Christian public. Specifically, the Supreme Court wanted to address concerns about their interpretation of the Establishment Clause prohibiting public schools from sponsoring prayer, because the decision departed from two hundred years of American tradition in which Christianity and public education were freely intermingled. They explained that the Establishment Clause applied to the states under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Case Citation:

Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 US 203 (1963)

The Supreme Court heard a similar case, Wallace v. Jaffree, in 1985, in which Alabama law permitted public school teachers to lead prayer sessions and teach religion during the school day. In a 6-3 decision, the Court determined the state law was unconstitutional under the First Amendment Establishment Clause.

Case Citation:

Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 US 38 (1985)

In Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court specifically ruled clergy-lead prayer at public school events is a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause because public schools are government agents bound by the constitutional prohibition against imposing religion on a secular audience. Private schools are free to incorporate prayer into their activities.

The Court held that "The school's rule creates subtle and indirect coercion (students must stand respectfully and silently), forcing students to act in ways which establish a state religion. The cornerstone principle of the Establishment Clause is that government may not compose official prayers to recite as part of a religious program carried on by government."

Case Citation:

Lee v. Weisman, 505 US 577 (1992)

The Supreme Court addressed one school district's attempt to circumvent the decision in Lee v. Weisman, (1992) in their decision for Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, (2000), when the Court held the Santa Fe's policy of allowing student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games also violates the First Amendment Establishment Clause.

In the opinion of the Court, the school district was violating the Establishment Clause by actively endorsing the single viewpoint of the majority and ensuring the minority views would be effectively silenced. This practice was not only a violation of the Establishment Clause, but also infringed on the rights of others, particularly cheerleaders, football players, and band members whose attendance was mandatory, who might hold different (or no) religious views. Justice Stevens wrote: "The Constitution demands that schools not force on students the difficult choice between attending these games and avoiding personally offensive religious rituals."

Case Citation:

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 US 290 (2000)

You can read more about these Supreme Court cases by accessing Related Questions, below.

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Q: What are three US Supreme Court cases involving the First Amendment Establishment Clause and education?
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