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Religious Tolerance logo

Church/state separation: U.S. court rulings

Quotations. Overview. Prayers at graduation
ceremonies, school board meetings, etc.

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bullet"Americans are being denied the right to express their religious speech in the public square." Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition.
bullet"There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights. malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed." - Supreme Court of Wisconsin, Weiss v. District Board, (1890-MAR-18).
bullet"The [First] Amendment's purpose... was to create a complete and permanent separation of the spheres of religious activity and civil authority by comprehensively forbidding every form of public aid or support for religion." U.S. Supreme Court, Reynolds v. United States (1879)


The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the courts, guarantees that:

bulletindividuals will have freedom of religious expression;

bulletthe government and its agencies will not recognize one religious faith as more valid than any other faith or secularism;

bulletthe government and its agencies will not promote religion above secularism or vice versa.

These principles are continuously in a state of creative tension.

bulletMany Americans feel that prayer forms part of their religious expression; thus they want their children to pray in public school classrooms, their school board to pray before its meetings, etc.
bullet Many non-Christians and secularists are opposed to prayer, particularly if it contains Christian themes and references to Jesus Christ.
bullet Others feel that a wall of separation must be maintained between religion and the government and its agencies; they regard this factor as outweighing any personal religious considerations.

Summaries will be posted below of important, recent court rulings that impact on the separation of church and state, starting in 1999-MAR. Court decisions involving prayer inside public school buildings are located elsewhere.

Prayers at public school graduation ceremonies

A 1992 decision "Lee v. Weisman" by the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited "prayer, benediction, or invocation at any graduation ceremonies" if they were directly conducted or sponsored by a public school board. However, lower courts have ruled in recent years that some graduation prayers are legal. Some school boards have attempted to circumvent the 1992 decision by sponsoring prayers indirectly, by authorizing students to compose them and deliver them. More details on this topic.

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Prayers at public high school sports events:

Various courts have found that an individual student or group of students may exercise their freedom of religion by initiating impromptu prayer at school sporting events. However, school officials may not add a prayer to the schedule of a game. More details on this topic.

1999: Decision concerning prayers before the Cleveland Board of Education meetings:

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals decided on 1999-MAR-18 that the Board of Education in Cleveland, OH, cannot pray before their meetings. The court ruled that prayers are an illegal endorsement of religion. 1

However, there is probably some wiggle room available to boards: they might be able to engage in a rotating series of prayers, recitations of secular philosophies, secular thoughts on life, etc. This technique replaces prayer to God with a cultural expression, and might be found legal. It would also probably be unacceptable to many members of the boards of education because of the inclusivity of the prayers/statements.

2005 to 2011: DE: Indian River School Board lawsuit, also concerning sectarian prayers:

A conflict in Delaware involved the Indian River School Board and its 8,400 students. It is an important case because it helped establish "settled law" on the matter of prayers in public school boards.

The Board has been praying at its meetings since it was founded in 1969. Individual board members give the invocation which may be sectarian or non-sectarian "in the name of a Supreme Being, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah," or any other deity. According to court briefs, the prayers have almost always been Christian. 3 

In 2005, two Jewish families launched a lawsuit -- Doe v. Indian River -- to prevent the board from starting their meetings with a sectarian prayer. The board initially won in a ruling by federal District Court Judge Joseph Farnan. He reasoned that the Board is closer to a legislative body than a school. Thus it should be able to open its meetings like the U.S. Congress -- with a prayer. He noted that the board did not use prayers "... to proselytize or advance religion." He concluded that the court "... may not demand anything further" of the board.

Jason Gosselin, attorney for the school district, said:

"Here we have an elected school board. They represent distinct districts within the school district. They have the power to levy and collect taxes for purposes of running the school district. They set policy for the school district. They take an oath of office that's nearly identical to the oath taken by the Delaware General Assembly. When you look at all of those things, it's very difficult to come to a conclusion other than this is a legislative body." 4 

Gosselin noted that this topic has been the source of many conflicts across the country. He said:

"It's something that I expect people will continue to fight over, and there's going to be more disputes on this. There will probably be an appeal in this case, so it's not settled nationwide." 4

The plaintiffs appealed the case to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The court agreed with the lower court that the key question was whether the Board was closer to a school or to a legislative body. However, they noted that students were often present at meetings and sometimes took part by advising the board. Also, the board sometimes recognized the accomplishments of academic and sports achievements. The court came to the opposite conclusion from the lower court and ruled that board meetings are similar to some school events, like a graduation ceremony. Other courts have generally ruled that school-sponsored prayers have a coercive effect on students and are thus unconstitutional.

They cited a ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, OH. It ruled that prayers before board meetings in Cleveland were barred by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling referred to the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers. 4  It ruled that prayers in legislative assemblies were constitutional:

"Regardless of whether the board is a deliberative or legislative body, we conclude that Marsh is ill-suited to this context because the entire purpose and structure of the Indian River School District revolves around public school education. The First Amendment does not require students to give up their right to participate in their educational system or be rewarded for their school-related achievements as a price for dissenting from a state-sponsored religious practice." 3 

They quoted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision striking down official prayer in the New York state schools in 1962, Engel v. Vitale:

"It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves." 6 

The text of Doe v. Indian River is available online at 7

The story continues in another essay with the appeal of the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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References used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Religion Today news summary, 1999-MAR-19.
  2. Bill Mears, "Ten Commandments before high court. Explosive church-state issues from Kentucky, Texas," CNN,com Law Center, 2005-MAR-01, at:
  3. "Prayers a school board meetings struck down," Faith and the law's blog, 2011-AUG-08, at:
  4. Bill Bumpas, "Delaware school board allowed invocation...for now," OneNewsNow, 2010-MAR-02, at:
  5. "U.S. Supreme Court MARSH v. CHAMBERS, 463 U.S. 783 (1983) ," Find Law, 1983-JUL-05, at:
  6. "U.S. Supreme Court ENGEL v. VITALE, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)," Find Law, 1962-JUN-25, at:
  7. The text of Doe v. Indian River is available online at:

Copyright © 1998 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original publishing date: 1998-AUG-5
Latest update: 2012-JAN-21
Author: B.A. Robinson
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