Although U.S. courts over the past two decades have consistently struck down efforts to permit Bible reading and prayers in the nation's public schools, the American people just as consistently have favored religious observances in the schools.
In the latest nationwide Gallup survey, 76 percent of those surveyed said they favor a constitutional amendment to permit prayers in public schools.
The public has not budged on this issue over the years. In a Gallup Poll in 1974, 77 percent said they would favor such an amendment and in a survey conducted shortly after the U.s. Supreme Court's 1963 ruling banning prayer in public schools, 70 percent expressed disapproval of the ruling.
While the public supports prayers in schools, the prevailing opinion among all groups and all faiths in the U.S. is that the home is more important than either the church or schools in the religious training of children.
A 1979 Gallup survey showed 75 percent naming the home, 16 percent the church, and only 3 percent of the schools, as most important to the religious and spiritual development of a child.
Although many religious organizations agree with the Supreme Court, including the National Council of Churches and the U.S. Catholic Conference, various groups and individuals continue to challenge the 1963 ruling.
In an effort to circumvent the Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts passed a law permitting students and teachers to offer voluntary prayer in public schools, allowing those who did not wish to participate to abstain. But last month the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled this law unconstitutional.
About a dozen states have laws that permit periods of silent meditation in the public schools and these laws have not been challenged.
On a national level, Congress has turned back legislative proposals for school prayer nearly every year since the Supreme Court's 1963 ruling. Most recently Sen. Jesse Helms (R-(N.C.) and Rep. Philip Crane (R-ill.). sponsored a constitutional amendment now before the House Judiciary Committee that would deny the Supreme Court jurdisdiction over prayer in schools and leave such decisions to the states.
Analysis of the survey results by demographic groups show that those most in favor of school prayer are women, nonwhites, persons with only a grade-school education and older adults.