New York University Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Navigation Skip to Sub Navigation

New School Prayer Cases Reignite Public Debate Over Religion in the Public Schools, Says NYU Professor

April 17, 2008
N-414, 2007-08


This week, a federal court of appeals upheld the policy of a public school district in New Jersey prohibiting a high school football coach from joining his players in prayer before games. Three weeks ago, two Delaware families settled part of a lawsuit against their school district concerning Christian prayer in their public schools. The cases have brought bitter recriminations among people in each community; in the Delaware case, one family had to move out of the school district to avoid anti-Semitism.

According to New York University journalism professor and author Stephen D. Solomon, the New Jersey ruling was consistent with prior cases saying that school officials participating in devotional activities are violating the First Amendment by appearing to endorse religion.

Solomon is the author of Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer (University of Michigan Press), which tells the story of how 16-year-old Ellery Schempp’s objection to mandatory school prayer and Bible reading led to one of the most controversial court cases of the 20th century. The 1963 decision, Abington School District v. Schempp, still reverberates in the battle over the role of religion in public life. It prompted a conservative backlash that continues to this day-in the skirmishes over devotional exercises in the classroom, the controversy over the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, and the role of faith in Presidential campaign politics.

“Americans have been fighting over religion in education since the first public schools opened their doors,” says Solomon, pointing out that riots in Philadelphia in 1844 over Bible reading in the public schools claimed more than a dozen lives. “Despite rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, the subject of school prayer still provokes passions, misunderstanding, and lawsuits today.”

The coach’s case, which may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, could affect many coaches who pray with their teams before games. Solomon points out that such situations are inherently coercive.

“The football coach is a school official with considerable authority,” says Solomon. “Teenaged players who disagree with a prayer may nevertheless feel that they have to participate in the devotional activity. They may fear that if they excuse themselves from prayer, the coach will hold it against them in decisions involving their opportunity to play.”

Reporters interested in speaking with Solomon should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or

Solomon teaches First Amendment law and holds a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center. He is co-author of Building 6: The Tragedy at Bridesburg, and his articles have appeared in publications including the New York Times Magazine and Fortune. See Solomon’s website ( for information about the Schempp case and about the most recent controversies over religious exercises in the public schools.

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Graduate School of Arts and Science

Type: Press Release


Search News

NYU In the News

Entrepreneurship Lab Opens at NYU

Crain’s New York Business covered the opening of the Mark and Debra Leslie Entrepreneurial eLab, which will be the headquarters for NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute and all of the University’s programs aimed at promoting innovation and startups.

A Globalizer for N.Y.U. in Abu Dhabi

The New York Times profiled Bill Bragin who will become the first executive artistic director of NYU Abu Dhabi’s new performing arts center.

Think Tank to Ponder a Future for Ballet

The New York Times profiled Jennifer Homans, the director of NYU’s new Center for Ballet and the Arts.

The Brilliant Ten: Jonathan Viventi Builds Devices That Decode Thoughts

Popular Science named Assistant Bioengineering Professor Jonathan Viventi as one of its “brilliant ten” for his research into brain implants that could one day halt epileptic episodes:

Living and Leaving the Dream: Adrian Cardenas’ Journey from the Major Leagues to College

The New York Times ran a feature on Adrian Cardenas, a former major league baseball player who is now studying philosophy and creating writing at NYU.

NYU Footer