Public Schools, Religious Establishments, and the U.S. Supreme Court

Published date01 January 2009
Date01 January 2009
Subject MatterArticles
Public Schools, Religious
Establishments, and the
U.S. Supreme Court
An Examination of Policy Compliance
Kevin T. McGuire
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The issue of devotional activity in the public schools has long been a staple
of the U.S. Supreme Court’s agenda, but knowledge of the local implemen-
tation of school prayer policy remains limited to the Court’s earliest deci-
sions. To what extent are schools presently engaged in religious activities
prohibited by the Court? This study addresses this question through a survey
in which recent high school graduates provided data on the level and types
of devotional practices in their schools. The results suggest that there con-
tinues to be resistance to the Supreme Court, especially in the South, in rural
and less educated communities, and in areas with higher concentrations of
conservative Christians.
Keywords: Supreme Court; religious establishment; school prayer; First
Amendment; public schools; policy compliance
Religion in the public schools has been one of the mainstays of the
docket of the U.S. Supreme Court. At least since the 1940s, the jus-
tices have considered challenges to a wide array of programs that, in one
way or another, mingle d evotional activity w ith public education, and
almost without exception these programs have been invalidated by the jus-
tices as violationsof the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Initially,
scholars interested in this area of the justices’ policymaking devoted a good
deal of attention to examining compliance with the Court’s school prayer
American Politics Research
Volume 37 Number 1
January 2009 50-74
©2009 Sage Publications
hosted at
Author’sNote: A number of scholarsoffered useful adviceat various stages in the development
of this article. I am especially indebted to Lawrence Baum, Gregory Caldeira, Dennis Chong,
Jerry Goldman, Virginia Gray, Mark Hurwitz, Jeffrey Jenkins, Wesley Skogan, Clyde Wilcox,
and Christopher Zorn. In addition, I appreciate the insights and suggestions of the anonymous
reviewers. Correspondence concerning this article should be addr essed to Kevin T. McGuire,
Department of Political Science, Chapel Hill, NC 27599; e -mail:
policies. It turned out that the justices’ mandates were often met with resis-
tance, as many schools continued to read the Bible and lead students in
prayer, notwithstanding the Court’s clear pronouncements to the contrary
(see, for example, Birkby, 1966; Dolbeare & Hammond, 1971; Muir, 1967;
Way, 1968).
Of course, prayer in schools remains an issue of considerable public
salience, and surveys regularly show that large numbers of Americans
favor it. For example, a majority of Americans have disapproved of the
Court’s elimination of mandatory prayer for as long as survey researchers
have polled on this question.
Not surprisingly, the issue has scarcely been
on the wane; cases involving prayer in schools have continued to belabor
the Court, as public schools have continued to search for creative mechan-
isms to permit religious exercises without offending the Establishment
Clause. Judging by the Court’s decisions in this area, these efforts have
not been successful. Despite changes in the composition of the Court, its
consistent teaching has forbidden virtually any form of devotional practice
that communities have put into place.
How have public schools reacted to this stream of decisions? Do they
continue to resist more recent rulings, and if so, what explains that resis-
tance? Here I report findings from a survey of college undergraduates,
most of whom attended public high schools in the South. By their account-
ing, not only are schools continuing to resist the Court’s most recent poli-
cies, but substantial numbers of southern schools are evidently still
defying rulings that are decades old. The data reveal some of the links
between the level of compliance and regional social norms, external pres-
sures within a community, and the likely attitudes of school officials.
The Legal Context for Compliance
To assess the extent to which public schools comply with the Supreme
Court’s policies on school prayer, it will be helpful to survey the legal back-
ground against which such compliance takes place. Schools engage in a
variety of activities that, in one way or another, touch upon religion, and a
good many of them have been adjudicated before the justices. For the pur-
poses of this analysis, I focus on those activities that involve the state’s pro-
motion of some type of devotional activity in its public schools. This
category, therefore, includes cases of required religious exercises but
excludes such issues as the expense of public funds for religious institutions
or religious purposes.
Likewise, it omits instances of state-compelled
McGuire / Public Schools, Religious Establishments, and the U.S. Supreme Court 51

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