Prayer In School Essay Research Paper IntroductionThe

Prayer In School Essay, Research Paper


The issue of separation between church and state has invoked great controversy in American society. When asked the question, should schools be allowed to start the day off with a prayer, seventy-two percent polled responded yes (The American National Election Study of 1980). Yet the Supreme Court has continually denied allowing prayer to seep into the public school system. The Supreme Court has repetitively ruled that the infiltration of religion, via prayer, in the public school system is contradictory to the principles this country represents and is in violation of the Establishment Clause located within the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Amidst this controversy two succinct theories have become prevalent, accommodationists and separationists. Accommodationists feel that religion is part of our political, historical and cultural heritage. And thus, prayer in school is in harmony with the values this country represents, hence the name accommodationists, who construe (accommodate) the First Amendment to allow prayer in school. Separationists, on the other hand, believe that there is no law respecting the mixture of religion. Separationists feel that there is a clear wall of separation between church and state. This paper will elaborate upon both theories, eventually proving the separationists correct and further discuss the Supreme Court decisions concerning prayer in school.

Critiquing Establishment Clause

The debate over the Establishment Clause must begin by looking at how the Establishment Clause is worded in the constitution. In the First Amendment of the United States Constitution it reads, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Because of the numerous revisions before an acceptable Establishment Clause phrase was agreed upon it is safe to assume that the framers were very specific as to how they wanted this Clause worded. First, the accommodationist theory (that will be discussed later on) that the framers merely meant the connotations of this Clause to prevent an established national religion is incorrect. If the framers had meant for this it seems logical that it would have been worded, no law respecting an establishment of a church. It seems doubtful that the framers meant for religion and church to be used synonymously (Lardner 1951, p. 112). Thus, it is safe to say that the framers meant for the Establishment Clause to mean more than merely the prevention of an establishment of a national religion.

Intentions of the Framers

If it is then agreed upon that the framers were specific in choosing the word religion what are the connotations? Since it is decided that the framers meant much than just prohibiting the establishment of a national religion the next question to answer is how far did the framers intend this prohibition to go in society? By looking at the attitudes of the framers during the time of the writing of the constitution this question can be answered with a certain amount of confidence. During the period of the writing of the constitution religious reform was starting to take place. The ecclesiastical domination meant to control the lower classes was starting to lose its power. The belief that the message of God was in the hands of the elite was starting to lose form and religious individuality was on the rise. Individuals started to believe that they could receive the message of God without an intermediary.

Among the early Deistic thinkers included Jefferson, Franklin and John Adams, all who had a significant impact on the writing of the constitution. As well, Washington and Adams, who were not deistic, were classified as free-thinkers, men who entertained a more than average degree of skepticism on such matters as the divinity of Christ and the Bible as the revelation of God s word. (Lardner, p. 113) What does this mean? That if many of the framers believed in individual, religious liberty then the Establishment Clause, written by the framers, was meant to include the separation of prayer with school. The school system in today s society is vastly different then the educational system in place during that time, but by knowing that many of the framers believed in religious freedom it can be assumed that they would have frowned upon the idea of a prayer been forced upon a student who did not want it.

Knowing the intentions of the framers and the implied meaning behind the Establishment Clause this paper will next discuss the two theories in interpreting the Establishment Clause.


To understand the accommodationist perspective it is necessary to look at the culture that this society lives in. When looking at the front side of a coin the words, In God We Trust appears. On the back of a bill the eye of God hovers above the pyramid. When secondary children around the country pledge allegiance to the flag they say, under God. During Christmas season the white house puts up a Christmas tree. If there was meant to be a strict wall of separation between church and state how can In God We Trust appear on currency? How can the white house, one of the most recognizable symbols of this government support a Christmas tree? To an accommodationist, the answer is simple, religion has been apart of this culture, religion is a part of this culture and religion will be a part of this culture. To deny religion is to deny a part of American culture.

There are two different views an accommodationist has when interpreting the Establishment Clause. First, that the Establishment Clause does erect a wall of separation, but that wall only prohibits the state from preferring one religion to another. As long as support is non-discriminatory, religious aid is constitutional. However, this poses many problems for the minority view. It is easy to facilitate support in a non-discriminatory manner to the major religions, but it becomes complicated to administer this same support to the minority religions at the same time.

The second view an accommodationist might have is much more conservative. This view holds that the Establishment Clause simply prohibits the establishment of a national religion. Much like the one that was setup in England during the time of the break away. During this time the Episcopal Church was recognized as the official church in England. Thus, this Church was entitled to public financial support, as well as all members of the government being required to belong. Moreover, an accommodationist would then feel that any link between prayer and school is constitutional because it clearly does not mark the religion as the religion of the nation.

To hold the accommodationist belief that allowing school prayer will help increase the morals of the kids of society is a good thought. But that does not make it constitutional. This is not a moral question, but a constitutional question. Is prayer in school constitutional? Not, will prayer in school increase the morals of kids today?


The separationist s attitude towards the relationship between church and state is simple. The Establishment Clause, erects a solid wall of separation between church and state, prohibiting most, if not all, forms of public aid for or support of religion. (Epstein & Walker 2001, p. 143) This means any public money used for the support of religion is prohibited, along with any aid that may designate one religion over another. Everson v. Board of Education (1947) did allocate tax dollars to be used towards the transportation of children to public and private schools, but because the law was secular in purpose and neutral the Justices found it to be constitutional.

Supreme Court Decisions

The complexities that arise when interpreting the framers intentions becomes apparent when the Justices of the Court have trouble agreeing on what the correct intentions of the framers are. Moreover, confusion lies in the fact that the justices cannot come up with the same reasoning as to why prayer in school is unconstitutional. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) seven opinions are written, two majorities, two concurring and three dissenting. Furthermore, Engel v. Vitale (1962) contained three separate opinions that spanned over thirty pages. In School District v. Schemp (1963) there were four separate opinions that contained over one hundred seventeen pages of thought on prayer in school. This diversity in opinion makes evident the Courts inability to clearly decipher the question of the separation between church and state and demonstrates how difficult it can be when interpreting the constitution. Yet despite this failure to agree on the exact intentions of the framers the Justices have been consistent in the rulings of prayer in school. Continually they have ruled that there is a clear separation of church and state.

Speaking on behalf of the court, Clark writes in his opinion on Schemp, We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of the government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality. (Schemp, 374 U.S. 203) With regards to that citadel Justice Clark is referring to the notion of prayer in school. It is clear that the Justices are interpreting the Establishment Clause to prohibit the advancement of religion in any form.

Despite the complexities that have been associated with the Establishment Clause the Justices have been consistent in the separation of prayer from school. From Everson (1947) to Doe (2000) the Justices continually disallow any intermingling of prayer and school.



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