Can the kids pray at school?

On January 16th the Department of Education issued a new version of its “Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.”  There is not much that is new in it, which is not surprising.  Constitutional standards change very slowly if at all, and the law pertaining to students, teachers, and prayer has not budged for a long time.  

Kids can pray in school.  They always have been able to do so. As some have observed, as long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in public schools.  As long as there are last second free throws, there will be prayer during extracurricular activities.   There is no constitutional provision, court decision or law to the contrary.  God has not been taken out of the classroom, despite the claims of some. 

However, the authority of the teacher to pray with the kids, or to encourage prayer was taken away in the early 1960s due to a couple of Supreme Court decisions.  The 2020 Guidance acknowledges this: 

When acting in their official capacities as representatives of the State, teachers, school administrators, and other school employees are prohibited by the First Amendment from encouraging or discouraging prayer, and from actively participating in such activity with students.  

This is identical to the Guidance from 2003.  The principle here is neutrality.  When on the job, teachers, coaches and administrators are supposed “to show neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer.”   When a teacher joins in prayer with students, or a coach takes a knee with the players before the game, they are showing favoritism toward religious expression.  Likewise, any teacher who criticizes the students who choose to pray is demonstrating hostility, which is equally prohibited.

This is a hot button issue.  It requires lines to be drawn between “government speech” and “private speech,” and between student “free speech” and “disruptive” speech.  It’s not always clear.  Expect some turbulence.  Remember the principle of neutrality and let that be your guiding star. 


Tomorrow: Not an expulsion.  Just a “disenrollment.”  Hmmm.