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Lahser High School, located in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, banned its football team from student-led prayer while on the field. The ban was instituted as a result of a letter sent by the American Civil Liberties Union (the “ACLU”) on behalf of a local family. The ACLU argued that the practice was a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and Religious Freedom Clause. The team’s position was that the practice was a ritual followed after high stakes football games.
In reference to prayer, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” Although the religious language of the First Amendment applies specifically against the federal government, later Supreme Court cases have incorporated (or applied), the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses to state and local governments.
The first clause of the Constitution is the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from having a preference for or aiding religion. The ACLU’s stance is that by allowing the football players to pray as a team, the school (and thus the state government) is aiding religion. The ACLU letter also stated “that such faculty- or student-led prayer events could alienate or ostracize those who do not share the same beliefs.”
Closely related to the Establishment Clause is the Free Exercise Clause, which prevents the government from interfering with the practice of one’s religion. With all rights given by the Constitution, there are some limits. For example, if a person’s religion requires human sacrifice, the government can prevent this religious practice despite the guarantees of the First Amendment. The government has an interest in safeguarding the lives of its citizens.
So, what does this ban mean for the students of Lahser High School and other students in similar situations?
The ban on athletic prayer does not mean that athletes cannot pray before, after, or even during a game. The government cannot prevent you from playing silently. This is the entire purpose behind the Establishment Clause. The ban means that the school, via its coaches, cannot support prayer. Students, faculty, and staff have the right to practice, or not practice, a religion. In the case of the football team at Lahser High School, the ACLU’s argument was that the student-led prayers alienated students who practiced a minority religion or no religion at all.
School prayer cases have a long history. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court ruled that the New York Board of Regents’ optional school prayer violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. A year later, in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the Court held that state-sponsored Bible readings were unconstitutional. The seminal school religion case, however, came several years later in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), which established the test for whether a religious activity violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. For an activity to withstand a challenge under the Establishment Clause, it must satisfy the following three conditions:
- Have a secular (or non-religious) purpose;
- Must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and
- Must not require excessive entanglement between government and religion.
The government cannot prevent a student from performing a silent prayer after a high-stakes football game. Due to the separation of church and state and the respect for other’s religious (or non-religious) beliefs, the government also cannot sanction student-led or faculty-led prayers.