School Prayer Petition

Will signing a petition help reinstate organized prayer in public schools?

Claim:   Signing an e-petition to President Bush will help get organized prayer reinstated in public schools.

Status:   Not likely.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2002]


Please do not let this petition drop. If you do not want to sign it please just pass it on to someone else. Thank you.

Dear President Bush:

Many of us were deeply touched to hear you recite a portion of Psalm 23 In your address to this great nation in the dark hours following the Terrorists attacks. We were encouraged and comforted to know that we truly had a believer working with us and for us in our nation’s highest office.

We the people of America are requesting that you lift the prohibition of prayer in schools. As the pledge of our great country states, we are to be “One nation, under God.” Please allow the prayers and petitions of our children in schools without the threat of punishment. Currently, adults and children in the schools are prohibited from mentioning God unless of course His name is uttered as part of a curse or profanity. Madeline
Murray O’Hare is dead. Let her legacy of atheism in our schools die with her!

Sincerely, The People of America

Origins:   No federal law, as claimed in this petition, prohibits students (or teachers) from praying or mentioning God in American schools. The 1963 Supreme Court decisions in the cases of Abington School District v. Schempp and
Murray v. Curlett
held that requiring students attending public schools to read from the Bible or recite prayers violated Amendment I of the Constitution of the United States:

Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment by Congress of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, such as Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, expanded that principle to include not only compulsory prayer, but also any prayer directed or led by school officials or offered at school-sanctioned functions:

[In a previous decision] the Court held that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way that establishes a state religion or religious faith, or tends to do so. The District argues unpersuasively that these principles are inapplicable because the policy’s messages [i.e., “invocations” delivered by students over the public address system at football games] are private student speech, not public speech.

The delivery of a message such as the invocation here — on school property, at school-sponsored events, over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer — is not properly characterized as “private” speech.

These court decisions apply only to prayers conducted as part of school-sanctioned activities; students are still free to pray as much as they like in public schools, as long as such prayer is not part of a school activity or disruptive of normal school routine — no federal law prohibits students from praying between classes, at lunchtime, during recess, or even silently at their desks during class. Therefore, a petition requesting the lifting of “the prohibition of prayer in schools” is both vague and misleading.

Nonetheless, those who feel that organized school prayer has a place in public schools should consider whether signing an e-petition is the best way to bring about the desired result. Aside from the standard drawbacks common to all e-petitions, this plea has few additional shortcomings:

  • The putative recipient of this petition, the President of the United States, cannot effect the change desired.
  • Organized prayer is prohibited in public schools because the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled it a violation of the first amendment to the U.S. constitution. The president is head of the executive branch of our government and has no power to change either the contents or the interpretation of our constitution. Lifting the ban on organized prayer in public schools could only be brought about by the judicial branch (through a case which would provide for judicial review by the Supreme Court of previous interpretations of the establishment clause of the first amendment as related to school prayer) or the legislative branch (through the approval of a proposed constitutional amendment by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures). The president has no direct role in either of these processes — he cannot choose which cases the Supreme Court will hear, nor does he propose or approve constitutional amendments. (He can, of course, influence these processes indirectly through means such as appointing new justices to the Supreme Court, or using his political influence to line up congressional votes behind a proposed constitutional amendment.)

  • The method of delivery of this petition is particularly ineffective.
  • Simply e-mail the completed petition to As always, results are proportional to efforts, and merely spending a few seconds affixing one’s name to an e-petition and then blindly forwarding it to a general e-mail address for the president doesn’t amount to much of an effort. Printing out completed petitions and mailing them to the White House (or actually having them delivered there) would demonstrate a far greater level of commitment to the espoused cause.

Of course, the point of petitions isn’t always to get them into hands of the one person who can, by issuing a few orders, rectify whatever issue is being addressed. (Rarely does such a person exist, anyway.) Petitions are often simply a means of calling the attention of the public and public officials to an issue, and sometimes the mere circulation of a petition (especially on the Internet) can accomplish that goal — and even garner enough attention to make the national media take note. There are better ways to circulate petitions, though, than urging they be forwarded indiscriminately and clog up millions of inboxes.

Last updated:   5 January 2008