Religion in Public Schools: Positive Public Relations or a Public Relations Nightmare

Glen Dawursk, Jr.

April 16, 2008


About 1970, a college student and his friends decided to meet at their public university’s school's flag pole to pray.  They distributed flyers promoting their prayer meeting around their Texas A & M campus.  In April 1990, a similar group of students visited three public high school campuses and prayed with students around their school’s flag poles. That summer at a youth rally attended by 20,000 high school students, they were challenged to do the same at their public schools and they did.  On September 12, 1990, about 45,000 youth met at public schools in four different states and prayed before school around their school’s flag pole. The idea spread quickly and now has become a national event with over 3 Million students in all 50 states and has even spread to Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

This national event hit home for me this last fall when I was an administrator at a public charter school in the Milwaukee Public Schools.  A freshman student came to me and asked if he could put-up a poster about the “See You at the Pole” day and if he could arrange for our students to participate in the event around our school’s flag pole.  I was only the assistant principal functioning as the Dean of Students at the time, but responded that I did not see an issue as it was done before school and was out side the building.  I told him that I would be willing to participate in the event; however, that he would have to talk to the principal first about organizing and promoting the event during school.  The principal, a devout Muslim who prayed daily in his office behind closed doors, told the student that the school could not allow the poster to be put up and that he could not allow the students to pray around the school flag pole.  He felt it was inappropriate in a public school. When the student told me about the principal’s decision, I was surprised and even a little confused about where and when religious freedoms were permitted in a public school.  It also seemed contrary to our Board of Director’s desire for our school to branch out into our community and seek out means to connect with our predominately conservative Christian neighborhood. The national event day passed and our school did not participate.  A few weeks later, I mentioned the situation to another teacher. She in turn told the school’s Executive Director.  The Director, also a devout Muslim, approached me soon after and apologized for the principal’s decision and said that students were allowed 128 minutes of release time each week for religious purposes.  He also said that students could put up posters promoting similar religious events and could freely organize religious programs with other students at our school.  He concluded that he encouraged students to express their religious beliefs at our school and to pray.  Now I was really confused.  As a Christian myself, I have always thought that religion was no longer allowed in public schools, especially prayer.  In this course, we have learned that public relations include allowing the use of school facilities for public/community use.  It also promotes public school staff involvement in the community as a significant asset to creating better relations.  However, at what point does that cross line?  That is why I decided to explore the public relations issues of religion in public schools.  This paper will investigate briefly the place religion has in public schools, highlight important cases which have influenced the connection, and take the position that religion in schools does not violate our forefather’s intent and is actually good for community relations.

In January 1802, Thomas Jefferson, co-author of the US Constitution, addressed the Dansbury Baptist Association.  Jefferson told the group:

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, ‘thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.’”  (Lipscomb, 16:281)


Note the words, “separation between Church and State." This was the first time the phrase was used.  Since then, these five words have been applied continuously in the debate over religion in the public schools. 

Separation of church and state is actually based upon three clauses in the US Constitution which regulate the interaction of religion and government: the Religious Test Clause, the Establishment Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause. The Religious Test Clause comes from the interpretation of the third clause of the constitution’s 6th Article.  It states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."  The Establishment Clause is from the first amendment of the constitution and states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The amendment continues with the Free Exercise Clause: "Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Of the three clauses, only the last two become the framework for most of the debate around religion in public schools.

The Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe case is an example of how the courts have interpreted the Establishment Clause as to not allow any type of religious sponsorship at a public school.  In this case (530 U. S. 290, 390), the Santa Fe High School student council had a student designated as the “chaplain.”  This student said a prayer over the PA system before every home football game.  This practice had gone on for years until April 1995 when a number of Mormon and Catholic alumni and their parents petitioned the courts to suspend the practice.  In order to avoid intimidation or harassment, the Supreme Court permitted these respondents to remain anonymous. They accused the Texas school district of engaging in:

several proselytizing practices, such as promoting attendance at a Baptist revival meeting, encouraging membership in religious clubs, chastising children who held minority religious beliefs and distributing Gideon Bibles on school premises. They also alleged that the District allowed students to read Christian invocations and benedictions from the stage at graduation ceremonies, and to deliver overtly Christian prayers over the public address system at home football games.” (Santa Fe, 2006)


Even after the school district modified the practice to include only “non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayer”, on June 19, 2000 the 5th Circuit Court ruled against the school’s tradition.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice J. Stevens stated at the ruling, “School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

This was not the first time the courts had ruled against a public school allowing prayer during a school function. In the case of Lee v. Weisman (505 U.S. 577,1992), the court ruled against the school practice of allowing a religious leader to read a non-sectarian prayer at the Providence, Rhode Island public school graduation ceremonies.  The courts decisions centered especially on the school’s leadership planning the prayer and choosing the religious leader.  The court felt that “State officials… directed the performance of a formal religious exercise at the public school.”(Lee, 1992)  Additionally, the court relied upon a previous courts ruling to make their decision.  In the landmark case Lemon v. Kurtzman (403 US 602, 1971) the court ruled unconstitutional a Rhode Island law that permitted payment of some parochial school teacher salaries. To acquire their opinion, the court developed a tier for evaluating the Establishment Clause. US Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “Three ... tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.” (Mount, 1971) 

Political and religious scholars Barry Lynn, Marc Stern, and Oliver Thomas, in their book The Right to Religious Liberty stressed that all because a policy or rule has a "religious purpose or [may] be motivated by religion does not mean it is unconstitutional as long as it also has a bona fide secular or civic purpose [and] a law that has a remote or incidental effect of advancing religion is not unconstitutional as long as the effect is not a 'primary' effect" (p. 3).  They further emphasized that the court has left breathing room for “some entanglement” as long as it is not “too entangled.” (p. 4)

This room for movement is why “the issue of the proper role of religion in public schools continues to be the subject of great controversy.” (ADL 2004)  For instance, several cases have met the lemon test and have allowed “moments of silent prayer” in schools (Brown v. Gilmore, 258 F. 3d 265 (4th Cir. 2001); Bown v. Gwinnett County School Dist., 112 F. 3d 1464 (11th Cir. 1997) and even the judges in the Santa Fe case stated "nothing in the Constitution...prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day." (530 U.S. at 313)  However, an interpretation of how much movement was acceptable in a public school was still needed.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 require the Secretary of Education to “issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.” (ESEA, Section 9524)   Further the Department of Education’s website states that “in order to receive funds under the ESEA, an LEA [the school] must certify in writing…that no policy of the LEA prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools as set forth in this guidance.”  (2006) The official document supplied to all public schools gives guidelines for acceptable prayer during non-instructional time and accommodation of prayer during instructional time, organization of prayer groups and on-campus religious activities, allowable prayer and religious involvement for school employees, moments of silence, religious expression and prayer in class assignments, student assemblies and extracurricular events, and prayer at graduation and baccalaureate ceremonies. (USDE, 2003)

The second clause applied to schools inherently is the Free Exercise Claus. A test case that narrowed this clause’s interpretation was the Employment Division of the Oregon Department of Human Resources v. Smith, (494 U.S. 872, 1990).  Ironically, this case had nothing to do with schools.  The case involved two Native Americans who were dismissed from their job because they used a hallucinogenic drug at their Native American Church.  They claimed that their church used the drug strictly for sacramental purposes.  The case developed an interesting and controversial decision about religion and law.  On April 17, 1990 US Supreme Court Justice J. Scalia wrote that the court affirmed that “the First Amendment obviously excludes all ‘governmental regulation of religious beliefs as such.' (Sherbert, 402) The government may not compel affirmation of religious belief (Torcaso, 488, 1961), punish the expression of religious doctrines it believes to be false (Ballard, 322, 1944), impose special disabilities on the basis of religious views or religious status (McDaniel 618, 1978; Fowler 345, 1953; Larson 456, 1982), or lend its power to one or the other side in controversies over religious authority or dogma (Presbyterian 393, 1969; Kedroff 344, 1952; Serbian 426, 1976).”  However, the court decided that “subsequent decisions have consistently held that the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and neutral law’ of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes or prescribes conduct that his religion prescribes or proscribes.”  Simply stated, this case established that religious freedom does not supersede rules intended to benefit the rest of the country – including schools.  Students can not claim a religious reason if the school has a policy for the benefit of the entire populous.  This ruling has similar “movement” in interpretation as did the previous case. It has also cleared the way for legal action against individuals in schools who violate school rules but use their freedom of religion as a reason to do so. It can also be stretched to include legal action against schools that use religious symbols in classrooms, post the 10 commandments, or celebrated religious holidays.  The legal battles never end. 

It was not the desire of the authors of our constitution to stop religion in public schools or dissuade use of public facilities for religious purposes; rather, it was the desire of our forefathers to not restrict it to one theology, belief, or practice. Tomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography:


“The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal.”  This single issue that proved the focus of the authors was to offer freedom fro all religions, not just one, was made clear with this comments by Jefferson: “Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
Leicester, 1821, 1:71)


As the Board of Education v. Mergens (496 U.S. 226, 250, 1990) Court explained, "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."  The judges in the Santa case also quoted this statement in their decision.  But the implied difference is often muddied as we delve deeper into the issues concerning the separation of church and state.

In conclusion, by no means is this report intended to address every aspect of religion in the public schools.  Our course textbook confirms that even amongst religious groups there is contention.  It clearly states, “Their [religious groups] purpose is to promote moral and spiritual values. Because of differences in sectarian doctrine, they are divided on issues relating to public education (Bagin, 2008).”  Rather, this paper’s intent was to establish a framework of reasonable understanding within the complexity of this issue.  Certainly, I have not addressed all areas of the debate. The controversy can also include these other issues:

·        Religion in the curriculum,

·        Evolution versus creationism,

·        Teaching about religious holidays,

·        Religious displays on school property,

·        Released time programs for religious practice or instruction,

·        Student religious clubs,

·        Use of school facilities by outside religious organizations and clubs,

·        Distribution of religious materials by students,

·        Distribution of religious material and proselytizing by non-school personnel,

·        Religious dress codes, and

·        Teachers' religious expression.


All of these issues will continue to be of concern as our democracy becomes more and more diversified; but even as the law seeks to tweak and focus more intently upon individual rights within the public schools, we remain a nation dedicated to protect the religious freedom of all people within those rights and that will continue to affect the public relations considered essential to the overall success of any public school.

A group of 24 national organizations created a statement called the “Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy.”  This document has been supported by both sides of the issue as it succinctly states the need for the church and state to find common ground:

“Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.”
 (First, 2004, Principal IV)

I do plan on being the advisor for the student-led, student-organized “See You at the Pole” event set for September 17 this fall. I will stand with the students at my school as they meet outside and circle the school’s flagpole before school for this student-led prayer meeting.  While debatable, I believe my involvement will contribute to positive public relations within my community and offer another conduit to connecting with our families.  But even more significantly, these students will share in their legal right to express their freedom of religion – even in the shadow of our public school. Jefferson would be proud.


Sources Consulted

ADL: Anti-Defamation League. (2004). Religion in the Public Schools. Washington, DC. Retrieved July 1, 2007 from

Bagen, Don and Donald R. Gallagher, Edward H. Moore. (2008). The School and Community Relations. Boston: Pearson Publishing, 368 pgs.

Bown v. Gwinnett County School Dist., 112 F. 3d 1464 (11th Cir. 1997).

Brown v. Gilmore, 258 F. 3d 265 (4th Cir. 2001)

Employment Div., Ore. Dept. of Human Res. V. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

First Amendment Center. (1999). Religious Liberty, Public Education, and the Future of American Democracy. Nashville. Retrieved July 6, 2007 from

Fowler v. Rhode Island, 345 U.S. 67, 69, 1953

Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 95 -119, 1952;

Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 245, 1982

Lee v. Weisman (90-1014), 505 U.S. 577 (1992). Retrieved from Cornell Law School website on April 10, 2008 from

Leicester, Paul, editor. (1905). The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Federal Edition. 12 vols. New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons. Retrieved  April 11, 2008 from

Lemon v. Kurtzman (No. 89) No. 89, 310 F.Supp. 35; Nos. 569 and 570, 316 F.Supp. 112). Retrieved from Cornell Law School website on April 10, 2008 from

Lipscomb, Andrew A. & Albert Ellery Bergh, editors. (1905). The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 1 Jan. 1802, Writings 16:281. Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association. Retrieved on April 5, 2008 from

Lynn, Barry W. Marc D. Stern & Oliver S. Tomas. (1995, March).The Right to Religious Liberty: The Basic ACLU Guide to Religious Rights. Southern Illinois University Press: 2 Rev Updated Edition.

McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618, 1978

Mount, Steve. (2006). The Lemon Test. The U.S. Constitution on Line. Retrieved April 10, 2008  from

Presbyterian Church in U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 445 -452, 1969

Santa Fe Independent School District V. Doe (99-62) 530 U.S. 290 (2000),

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe Trial Brief. (2006) Retrieved on April 4, 2008  from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law website at

Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 708 -725, 1976.

Sherbert v. Verner, supra, at 402

Stern, Marc D. (1996, June) Religion and the Public Schools: A Summary of the Law. Diane Pub Co.

The University of Chicago. (1987). The Founders Constitution website. Retrieved April 4, 2008 from

Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 1961

United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 86 -88, 1944

US Department of Education. (2006). Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools. Retrieved on April 10, 2008 from