The Practice of Religion in Public Schools
The “establishment” or “religion” clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (Education Week, 2003, para. 2). It is from this clause that the idea of separation of church and state comes. It is also the basis for much of the debate regarding the practice of religion in public schools (Education Week, 2003). One of the big questions regarding the religion issue is where to draw the line between separation of church and state and religious freedom. The practice of religion in public schools can balance these two ends by allowing students to individually exercise their religious freedom, so long as they do not interfere with that of other students.
Throughout the twentieth century, the United States Supreme Court has protected students’ rights to practice their religious beliefs, so long as they are not “disruptive, discriminatory, or coercive to peers who may not share those same beliefs” (Education Weekly, 2003, para. 3). In 1943, the Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette stated that students could not be “forced to salute the flag or say the pledge of allegiance if it violates the individual’s conscience” (First Amendment Cyber Tribune, 2002). The 1963 decision in Engel v. Vitale made school prayer unconstitutional, and similarly found school prayer at graduation ceremonies in its 1992 Lee v. Weisman decision (First Amendment Cyber Tribune, 2002). Student-led prayer at public school football games was found unconstitutional in 2000 with the Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (First Amendment Cyber Tribune, 2002). In all these cases, the activities were found unconstitutional because they were viewed as coercive to students who may not share the same beliefs.
In 1995, the Clinton administration attempted to put an end to the confusion surrounding the practice of religion in public schools. As directed by the President, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sent out guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools to every school district in the country. Since issuing these guidelines, students, teachers, parents, and school officials have found it easier to compromise on these issues. By spelling out exactly what religious activities are permitted in schools, the possibility for a lawsuit is diminished...