California Education Law: Prayer in Schools

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It might seem that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion or taking any actions that favor one religion over another, ties a nice clean bow on the subject of prayer and religion in public schools, but lawsuits that continue to challenge the issue prove that it's not quite so simple.

Numerous precedents set by the Supreme Court and others maintain that officially sponsored prayer in California public schools is against the law, but that's not the end of the discussion on prayer and closely related religious topics in the public education sphere.

Court Precedents on School Prayer

Of course, the legality of prayer in California public schools falls under the jurisdiction of federal law. In the pivotal 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case of Engel v. Vitale, a public school in New York was challenged for starting the day with a Christian prayer. Ultimately, the court decided that "by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the [prayer], the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause." This Supreme Court precedent has since been followed in schools nationwide.

Closer to home for Californians, in 2018, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – which is headquartered in San Francisco – ruled that a Chino Valley school could not include prayer, proselytizing or citing of scripture at its school board meetings. This ruling upholds the notion that sponsored prayer is not only unwelcome at school but, as the court puts it, at places or events that "function as extensions of the educational experience of the district's public schools."

While the issue of actual prayer in schools has a clear-cut federal precedent, some matters with religious overtones remain less legally definitive. Despite the Establishment clause of the First Amendment, some schools still include the words "under God" when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, a practice that the Supreme Court decided does not violate constitutional law in the 2004 case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow. The Court in that case ruled that the rote repetition of the phrase, under God, had sapped it of significant religious meaning so that reciting it does not violate religious freedoms.

Religion, Pledges and Prayer in California Public Schools

Federal law on prayer in public schools may seem clear, but do state-level laws in the Golden State add any legal wrinkles to the matter? As of 2019, California statutes do not contain any specific laws addressing the matter of prayer in public schools. As in other states, California adheres to the Supreme Court's decisions on such prayers.

Some governing bodies in California offer additional guidance on related issues. Regarding the Pledge of Allegiance, California's Education Code requires public elementary and secondary schools to perform daily patriotic exercises, but the school may choose to substitute other exercises for the Pledge. Likewise, students have the right to refrain from reciting the Pledge or saluting the flag, and teachers have the right to refuse to lead the Pledge. Schools may not punish either party for refusing to participate.

It's important to note that students in public schools are constitutionally protected in terms of voluntary prayer, however. If a student wishes to voluntarily pray in school, they have that individual right. Per Engel v. Vitale, public schools simply cannot sponsor or endorse prayer in an official capacity.

Reflection Periods in California Schools

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) chimes in with guidance on the issue of prayer and religion in public schools. Perhaps of most relevance is its direction on moments of silence, or periods set aside for quiet reflection, in schools:

"If a school has a minute of silence or other quiet periods during the school day, students are free to pray silently, or not to pray, during these periods of time. Teachers and other school employees may neither encourage nor discourage students from praying during such time periods."

Similarly – and consistent with numerous court decisions over the past 40-plus years – the DOE reminds schools that students may pray during noninstructional time and can organize prayer groups or similar activities. School employees may not encourage or discourage prayer in an official capacity either at school or at related events, and students may express religious beliefs in their class assignments.