Countries have different laws regarding the teaching of religion in publicly funded schools, and the part of prayer in the school day. In some nations, prayer in schools is banned by law and considered unconstitutional; elsewhere, the law requires prayers to be said.
Until the early 1960s, there were no laws on prayer in public schools in the United States. In 1962, prayer in public schools was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Many states then drafted their own laws that authorized school prayer and moments of silence, which were designed to avoid the definition of impermissible activity given by the Supreme Court. Such laws were enacted in 29 states.
This remained a controversial subject in the U.S. into the 21st century, with ongoing efforts aimed at reintroducing prayer, with individuals claiming that public education had declined, with low test scores, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence in classrooms after the Supreme Court's ruling. Those proposing the reintroduction of prayer emphasize that it would be voluntary but the aspect of peer pressure on pupils not participating in voluntary programs should be considered. By contrast, there continued to be strong efforts against the reintroduction of prayer by people supporting the theory of the separation of state and church.
In the Canadian province of British Columbia, by 1944 the Public Schools Act stated that no religious dogma or creed could be taught in public schools, but permitted the use of the Lord's Prayer in opening or closing school. During both world wars there was a wave of protest against the exclusion of Bible reading from public schools as examples of extreme moral depravity. As a result, an amendment of the Public Schools Act by the government of British Columbia in 1944 provided for compulsory Bible reading at the opening of the school day and a compulsory recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
The Council of Public Instruction drew up regulations, which slightly modified the compulsory nature of the Bible reading and the following prayer recitation. According to these regulations, a teacher or a student may be excused from the religious observances if he or she has conscientious ground for objecting to them.
Prayer in schools in the United Kingdom is called collective worship, which is supposed to be educational and provide pupils with the opportunity to worship or experience worship to evaluate or maybe assimilate. While acknowledging the school as a collection of different individuals with different beliefs and implies it is not committed to any particular faith, the use of the word worship implies reverence for a divine being, thus excluding most Buddhists and Jains.
In England and Wales, the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 states that all pupils attending community, foundation or voluntary schools are required to attend an act of collective worship on each school day. Pupils can be excused from attending by their parents or other special arrangements, while only pupils over the compulsory school age have the right to opt out of collective worship. Teachers in community schools cannot be required to lead or attend collective worship.
Under the 1998 Act, schools can file an application to the local authority's Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education for exemption from the requirement for broadly Christian character of the collective worship for some of their pupils or for the school as a whole. Such schools must provide alternative worship for these pupils. However, pupils can still be excused from this worship by their parents.