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

NYU Offers Financial Aid to Undocumented Students

The Wall Street Journal reported that NYU will begin offering scholarship aid to undocumented students for the school year beginning next September.

NYU Adopts Lean LaunchPad Program to Teach Entrepreneurship

Startup guru Steve Blank, in a Huffington Post blog, described how NYU adopted the Lean LaunchPad model to teach entrepreneurship to students and faculty at NYU.

Biology Professor Jane Carlton Examines Wastewater for the City’s Microbiome

The New York Times’ Science Times column “Well” profiled Biology Professor Jane Carlton and her research project to sequence microbiome of New York City by examining wastewater samples.

Steinhardt Professors Use a Play as Therapy

The New York Times wrote about a play written by Steinhardt Music Professor Robert Landy about the relationship between Adjunct Professor Cecilia Dintino, a clinical psychologist in the Drama Therapy Program, and a patient, former Broadway actress Jill Powell.

NYU Public Health Experts Urge Strengthening Local Health Systems to Combat Ebola

Dean Cheryl Healton of the Global Institute of Public Health and Public Health Professor Christopher Dickey wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post saying international health agencies need to strengthen their presence in countries at the local level to prevent future ebola outbreaks.

NYU Footer