New U.S. Guidelines on Prayer in Schools Get Mixed Reaction

From Religion News Service

The Department of Education has issued new guidelines on prayer in schools, drawing a mixed reaction from legal groups that keep a close eye on church-state issues.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige said the guidelines meet a requirement of the education reform law passed at President Bush’s initiative in 2001.

“Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families,” Paige said in a letter to public elementary and secondary schools accompanying the new document.


The seven-page document declares that schools risk losing federal funds if they have policies that prevent “constitutionally protected prayer in public schools.”

The guidelines remind school district officials that “teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional reading from the Bible or other religious activities.”

But it also discusses instances in which religious activity is considered permissible within school walls.

“Among other things, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities,” the guidelines read.

It also notes that students have the right to form religious clubs, prayer groups and other gatherings “to the same extent” as other non-curricular activities.

The guidance also addresses the role of teachers, administrators and other school employees. Though they are not permitted to encourage or discourage prayer in their official capacities, they can take part in unofficial religious activities.

“Before school or during lunch, for example, teachers may meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities,” the document says.

It also addresses the sometimes controversial matter of moments of silence, saying that “students are free to pray silently or not to pray during these periods of times.”

The document says religious expression is permitted in some class assignments. If a student is assigned to write a poem and he or she chooses to submit a prayer, such as a psalm, it should be “neither penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State questioned some of the legal interpretations included in the guidelines.

“Federal courts have split over the legality of some religious activities in public schools, such as so-called student-initiated prayer” at public school events, said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Yet these guidelines flatly state that such activities are legal.”

Other groups responded favorably to the document.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which frequently goes to court to challenge restrictions on religious activity, hailed the guidelines.

“This is a great moment for students in public schools all across America,” said Becket Fund President Kevin J. Hasson. “At last, we finally have teeth in the guidelines that supposedly have governed school policies since the Clinton administration.”

Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based law firm that has been entangled in legal battles with public schools, said, “The message is simple: School officials must stop discriminating against students and teachers who choose to pray or engage in religious expression.”

Nathan Diament, public policy director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, called the guidelines “a useful tool in promoting religious liberty for America’s student population.”