The Criminalization of School Prayer
Public schools in the state of New York are under the supervision of a state government agency, the State Board of Regents. In the late 1950s, they published a “Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training in the Schools.” One component of the statement was a prayer to be recited by public school students:
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee, and we beg thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country.”
In the statement, they expressed the belief “that this statement will be subscribed to by all men and women of good will, and we call upon all of them to aid in giving life to our program.” One would expect that most of the 88% of all adult Americans who identified themselves as Christians at that time would subscribe to the Board of Regents’ statement. Most followers of other theistic religions might also agree, because the prayer is not really a Christian prayer. The prayer implies only the existence of a single, monotheistic God who controls events in the universe and to whom one can pray and receive benefits.
The Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9 of New Hyde Park, NY, instructed their school principle to have the Regent’s prayer recited by the students, “aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day.” Shortly thereafter, the parents of ten pupils, who were enrolled in this school district, launched a lawsuit in New York State Court. They stated that this prayer conflicted with other beliefs, religions or religious practices and those of their children. Their case was based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which requires that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In rejecting their suit, the court said that the prayer was constitutional, as long as the school did not compel any student to join in the prayer over their parents’ objection. The New York Court of Appeals sustained this ruling. The parents then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. At this level, the stakes were rather high.
If the Supreme Court agreed with the parents, then state-mandated prayer in public schools would be unconstitutional everywhere in the U.S.
If the Supreme Court ruled decisively against the parents, then it would be fruitless for anyone to initiate future lawsuits against this form of school prayer.
The Board of Education argued that:
The prayer was so generally worded that is was different from ordinary prayers - it was based on the country’s “spiritual heritage.” No student was compelled to recite the prayer. They could be excused from the classroom or stay in class and remain silent. The Board adopted a regulation stating that: “Neither teachers nor any school authority shall comment on participation or nonparticipation … nor suggest or request that any posture or language be used or dress be worn or be not used or not worn.”
The court upheld the claim of the parents. They ruled that the Regents’ prayer was unconstitutional. Mr. Justice Black delivered the opinion of the court. He wrote:
“… daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity. Under the First Amendment, governments cannot “… compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.” Many of the early colonists were motivated to leave England and seek religious freedom in America. A major cause of emigration in the 16th century was the British Government’s involvement in the creation of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.
At the time that the Constitution was written, many Americans became aware “of the dangers of a union of Church and State … They knew the anguish, hardship and bitter strife that could come when zealous religious groups struggled with one another to obtain the Government’s stamp of approval … Our Founders were no more willing to let the content of their prayers and their privilege of praying whenever they pleased be influenced by the ballot box than they were to let these vital matters of personal conscience depend upon the succession of monarchs. The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say … that the people’s religions must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office.”
“When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”
The First Amendment rests on the “belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.”
History shows that many people lose “their respect for any religion that had relied upon the support of government to spread its faith,” “It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.”
Dissent by Mr. Justice Stewart:
His was the lone vote against the decision of the court:
“I cannot see how an ‘official religion’ is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation.”
“… we deal here not with the establishment of a state church, which would, of course, be constitutionally impermissible, but with whether school children who want to begin their day by joining in prayer must be prohibited from doing so.”
He described a number of instances where religion and the existence of God have been recognized by the government:
Each day’s session of the Supreme Court starts with the invocation: ”God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”
The National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner” contains the words “Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation.”
The National Motto is “In God We Trust.”
The Pledge of Allegiance to the flag contains the words “one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The Declaration of Independence includes the phrase: “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
The Supreme Court Ruling:
The case attracted enormous interest. Three briefs of amici curiae (friend of the court) were filed by organizations urging that the Regents’ prayer be declared unconstitutional. These were: the American Ethical Union, a group of organizations led by the American Jewish committee and a second group led by the Synagogue Council of America. Briefs in favor of upholding the constitutionality of the prayer were filed by the Attorneys General of 22 states: Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Lousiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and West Virginia.
Reaction to the Court Decision
Commentator Larry Paul writes that “according to religious enthusiasts, God was “kicked out” of the public schools by the Engel v. Vitale decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.” He comments that “Of all the court rulings of this century, none has sparked more action than Engel.
Reaction was impressive. A few responses were:
Privately funded billboards called for the impeachment of Justice Earl Warren.
Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale and Cardinal Spellman issued statements condemning the decision.
Representative Frank Becker (NY) called the decision “the most tragic in the history of the United States.”
Senator Sam Ervin (NC) said: “I should like to ask whether we would be far wrong in saying that in this decision, the Supreme Court has held that God is unconstitutional and for that reason the public school must be segregated against Him?”
Hearings were held into school prayer by the House Judiciary Committee in 1964. They were published in three volumes, totaling 2,774 pages.
Is School Prayer Actually Prohibited?
No. The Engel v. Vitale decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 prohibited only state-mandated prayer in public school classrooms. As Richard Riley, the former secretary of Education, stated: “… religious rights of students and their right to freedom of conscience do not stop at the schoolhouse door.” He was apparently quoting another landmark Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, where the court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Students in U.S. public schools are free to:
Take Bibles or other religious texts with them on the school bus.
Pray alone or in groups at the flag pole or elsewhere on school grounds.
Pray in classrooms outside of regular teaching hours.
Say grace and/or pray in a school cafeteria.
Form a Bible study club or any other religious club, if even one student-led group is already allowed in the school. This is a guaranteed right under the federal Equal Access Act of 1984.
Students can wear T-shirts with religious text. They can wear religious jewelry (buttons, symbols, crosses, Stars of David, pentacles, etc.)
Students can hand out religious materials.
Although these rights are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, they are not necessarily granted by school officials automatically. Fortunately, a variety of legal organizations, such as the Rutherford Foundation and ACLJ can intervene on behalf of students and explain the law to the school administration. These matters are usually cleared up very quickly, because of the wealth of case law supporting students’ rights. The Rutherford Foundation has stated: “Many cases can be solved with a strong and professional letter from an attorney, a legal memorandum from our office, or a phone call from a staff member.
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that religious instruction in public school was unconstitutional. In 1963, it ruled that mandatory reading of Bible verses or prayers are similarly unconstitutional. However, the same First Amendment guarantees that students may engage in many forms of non-disruptive personal religious expression, including the wearing of religious clothing and jewelry. They can pray (individually or in student-led groups) on the school bus, at the flagpole, before lunch, in the corridors, in the classroom before and after lessons, at sports events, etc. They can distribute religious literature. If there are any student-led clubs in the school, they have the right to teach any religion as truth. They can teach about religion, as long as they can meet certain requirements.