Secularism I -- Prayer in public schools
Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...
The fourteenth amendment, ratified in 1868, broadened the reach of the first, in its second sentence:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States...
Since US Public schools are state institutions, they cannot abridge their students' first amendment rights. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court ruled that official prayer in public schools violates the US Constitution.
Since this is a matter of straightforward constitutional law, there isn't much room for debate about what the law allows. A more interesting question is: Is this a good idea? Should the constitution rule out prayer in schools?
There are several reasons why the answer is "yes", of which two are the most important:
(1) The government simply can't enforce belief in this fashion. By this I don't mean that it's immoral; I simply mean that it doesn't work. Compare the level of religion in the US, where school prayer has been banned for more than forty years, to that in the UK, where it's still prevalent.
Think about the Pledge of Allegiance for a moment. Every schoolchild recites it every day. Is it anything but a ritual at this point? Does it do anything to create real patriotism? Do you really want religion to be like the pledge--words recited mindlessly by children counting the seconds until lunch?
(2) In regions where there's a majority religion--and particularly if the majority is overwhelming--there has historically been an overwhelming temptation to try to use school prayer to enforce that religion. In such regions, the prayer tends not to be generic (although even generic prayers can be offensive to some faiths or to atheists); the prayers are instead explicitly Christian, or Protestant, or even Evangelical. The more specific such a prayer becomes, the more it tends to alienate those of other faiths. This sort of thing led to bloody wars in Europe; in the US it tends to conflate religious belief and citizenship in a manner that we should avoid at all costs.
The problem is that it's hard to be asked to swear against you conscience. Ask an atheist child to swear "by God", or a Jewish child to swear that "Jesus is Lord", and you're putting them in an impossible position of either lying or visibly standing apart from their class's (and their teacher's) beliefs. That isn't the proper business of a school.
To be honest, I don't understand the argument for prayer in schools--I'm an athiest born a dozen years post-Vitale. Could anyone with a reasonable pro- arguement post it in the comments?