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10 Rights the First Amendment Absolutely Does Not Grant


6
The Right for Teachers to Pray With Students
First graders pray silently in a South Carolina public school in 1966. At the time, the state's school districts left the "prayer issue" to the teacher's discretion. © Bettmann/CORBIS
First graders pray silently in a South Carolina public school in 1966. At the time, the state's school districts left the "prayer issue" to the teacher's discretion. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Not that long ago, public schoolchildren across America — of all religious backgrounds — began their day with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. It wasn't until a pair of landmark Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 that state-sponsored, mandatory school prayer was deemed a violation of the First Amendment's "establishment clause" forbidding the establishment of a state religion [source: Americans United].

But the First Amendment is tricky. The same sentence that outlaws the establishment of a national religion protects the rights of individuals to express and live according to their own religious convictions. Students are free to pray in school, form Bible study groups and openly discuss religious views in the classroom, as long as the religious messages come from the student, not the public institution.

This puts public school teachers in a constitutionally precarious position. Public school teachers are individuals with the right to freely practice their religion. But public school teachers are also considered "representatives of the state" by the U.S. Department of Education. Teachers are free to pray individually before, during and after school, and even form a lunchtime Bible study group with other teachers, but they are prohibited from endorsing or participating in religious activities directly with students during the school day [source: Dept. of Education]. That includes praying with students or joining student-run religious groups in anything other than a monitoring role [source: First Amendment Center].


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