Prior to 1962 in America, public school classrooms would generally open with a prayer led by the teacher. In 1955, the New York Board of Regents recommended the prayer "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country." The "Regent's prayer" along with any teacher-led prayer was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark decision Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962). Obviously this prayer is offensive to atheists, since they do not depend on God, nor do they want its blessings.
Even after 1962, when mandatory school prayer was ruled unconstitutional, it has continued to be an issue.
Arguments against school prayer
- School prayer is unconstitutional. The first amendment states that government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Public schools are funded by the government, so if prayer is part of the schools' schedules then it's the same as being endorsed by the government.
- Schools are for education, not worship. Prayer serves no educational purpose.
- It's unnecessary. Students are perfectly capable of worshiping their gods elsewhere. They can pray at home or at church (students are still allowed to pray at school all they want). They can even read the Bible at school and pray by themselves as long as they don't force anyone else to, so there is no reason to make it part of the formal schedule.
- It can lead to intolerance. Students may not want their peers to know they are atheists. So by not participating in the prayer they could be setting themselves up for prejudice. School prayer puts atheistic/agnostic students in an uncomfortable position, one that the school should not force on them.
- School prayer is coercive. If it's led by the teacher, part of the school routine, and engaged in by the vast majority of peers, it would be extremely difficult not to conform. So either the student will convert, lie, or be an outcast.
Arguments for school prayer
- Schools should instill good morals in students, and this requires prayer. While it is up to the schools to a certain extent to teach kids how to get along with others and to function in society, it's also up to the parents. Schools can teach kids morals in general, but not morals that follow the beliefs of any single religion since this would be unconstitutional. Only the parents of the child may do this. Also, belief in a god or gods isn't required to have good morality.
Arguments for school prayer generally rely on the concept that the founding fathers intended America to be a religious nation. See America is a Christian nation.