The issue of school-sponsored prayers in public schools, one of the most debated and publically misunderstood issues we work on here at the ACLU, never came up during my primary and secondary education.
Growing up and receiving my kindergarten through sixth grade education in Taiwan, I wasn’t aware of school-sponsored prayers and quite frankly, another set of rules applied there. After we moved to America, I spent my years in middle school frantically learning English; any prayers would have gone by unnoticed. I was enrolled in a private Catholic high school – my parents favored its smaller class sizes – and prayer was an everyday – and sometimes a multiple times per day – occurrence. School policy stated that I was not required to participate but needed to be respectfully silent, which I was.
My educational journey is fairly uncommon and my time spent in public schools was limited. Perhaps that is why I was surprised to learn about the ongoing campaign to reintroduce religion in public schools. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale (1962), decided 50 years ago this week, held that an official school-sponsored prayer in public schools stood in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Despite that, many school districts and states have attempted to reestablish school-sponsored prayer in various forms – such as prayers led by religious authority figures at public school graduation ceremonies, in Lee v. Weisman (1992) and prayers conducted via public address system, in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000). Both activities were ruled unconstitutional.
Coincidentally, though likely not, both activities were present at my high school. We did have prayers led by religious figures at graduation ceremonies as well as other events, and we did have prayers over the intercom. However, my family and I knew exactly what we were getting and what we were giving up when we selected a private Catholic school. Public schools are a different matter. Public schools should not be promoting particular religious or anti-religious beliefs and have a responsibility to protect children from being coerced by others to accept religious or anti-religious beliefs.
School-sponsored prayers and religion make individuals who do not share that belief feel alienated and like second-class citizens. At the ACLU of Nevada, we respect and protect religious liberty. True religious freedom gives everyone the right to make their decisions regarding religion or lack thereof. We protect public school students’ religious freedom by curbing the practice of school-sponsored religion. We defend students' rights to freely express and exercise their faith. We request those who believe one religion should be declared official in public schools to be respectfully silent while others are practicing their faith.