SCOTUS 101: Prayer in Public Schools | HistoryNet MENU

SCOTUS 101: Prayer in Public Schools

3/9/2017 • American History Archives, American History Magazine, HistoryNet

ON JUNE 25, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court declared prayer in public schools unconstitutional.

Of course, the court did not declare prayer in school unconstitutional, nor could it have. As the quip goes, “As long as teachers give math tests, there will be prayer in schools.”  

But the public can be forgiven for thinking the court tried to outlaw prayer in America’s public schools. The June 25, 1962, Washington Star blared, “HIGH COURT BANS SCHOOL PRAYER.” The next day’s Chicago Tribune also went big: “SUPREME COURT BANS SCHOOL PRAYERS.” Soon senators were demanding Congress undo the ruling.

“Unless something is done to counter this unfortunate decision, we will have blown out a light by which we have found our way,” Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Mississippi) said. 

What the justices did was a good bit more limited. Their holding in Engel v. Vitale, as officially summarized, was that “state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools of the state at the beginning of each school day—even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and pupils who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused from the room.”

In 1930 and in 1952, justices had declined to rule on the constitutionality of requiring Bible readings in public schools. Simply addressing the practice had great significance.

Specified school prayers were not uncommon in 1962; in fact, 13 states required daily prayer or Bible reading in public schools. Three days after lawyers argued Engel at the Supreme Court, Maryland’s highest court upheld a Baltimore rule that each school day in that city begin with a Bible passage and The Lord’s Prayer. A brief in Engel supporting the New York policy was signed by 22 states.  

“Few decisions have generated as widespread and intense a public reaction,” Oberlin College’s Donald R. Reich said. “Hostile and often strident critics of the Court dominated the visible reaction.” Among landmark high court rulings, Engel may be the most misunderstood. On YouTube, a video explains school shootings by having God say, “I am not allowed in public schools.”

There are at least three reasons the Engel decision got so widely misinterpreted:

• Nuance-free news coverage. The Columbia Journalism Review devoted its autumn 1962 issue to such lapses. Among the journal’s conclusions: working under fierce time constraints, the wire services, the key source for many American newspapers, published quotes most easily gotten, often from Southern politicians who had not read the opinion. For example, the Associated Press quoted Rep. George Andrews (D-Alabama): “They put the Negroes in the schools, and now they’ve driven God out of them.” 

• Overstatements on the ruling’s reach by foes and advocates. Stennis and other conservatives saw the decision as apocalyptic, but American Civil Liberties Union officials claimed Engel could mean an end to the singing of Christmas carols in schools.

• An informal protocol by which justices did not use public forums to correct misinterpretations, though Justice Tom Clark did. Addressing San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, Clark criticized coverage of Engel, insisting the public was wrong to think the court had “outlawed religious observance in public schools.”

Engel had its origins in a 1951 New York Board of Regents decision to develop “moral and spiritual training.” The Regents, overseers of New York public schools, wanted to acknowledge a source of morality, but knew that the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion meant no student could be forced to recite dogmas he or she did not accept. The Regents tried to skirt individual doctrines by composing this prayer: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”  

Each class was to begin each school day by reciting the prayer. However, conscious of freedom of religion constraints, the Regents ruled that any student wanting to remain silent or to leave the room was free to do so. The board forbade teachers and administrators to comment in any way on those opting not to participate. Nonetheless, the observance stirred controversy. New York City and other jurisdictions spurned it, but New Hyde Park on Long Island embraced the Regents’ prayer, prompting five parents to go to court in 1959 on behalf of their children. The suit reasoned that, in addition to guaranteeing freedom of religion, the First Amendment also bans “an establishment of religion.” Having the state dictate the words of a prayer to be used in a public school violates that ban, the plaintiffs said. Two New York State courts rejected that argument and, given the broad opt-out provisions, found nothing wrong with the Regents’ prayer or policy.  

That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in. To the justices, Engel was a slam-dunk. “By using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in the court’s opinion. “The constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as part of a religious program carried on by the government.” Only Justice Potter Stewart dissented.

The court did not find prayer in public schools unconstitutional, but that it was unconstitutional for government to include a particular prayer in a school program. Engel began a rethinking of the extent to which the ban on establishing religion required changes in prevailing practices. In 1963, again with only Justice Stewart dissenting, the Supreme Court struck down the Baltimore requirement and one in Pennsylvania calling for school-day recitation of The Lord’s Prayer and Bible reading—at least 10 verses.

The high court widened Engel in 1992 when justices said school officials could not invite clergy to give prayers at graduation ceremonies and in 2000 by voiding a Texas school district policy of having students recite pre-game prayers over school PAs.

The First Amendment bars government imposition of a particular religious practice on the populace—but also bars the government from inhibiting students’ religious practices. So, rather than God being evicted from the schools, Charles C. Haynes of the American Civil Liberties Union notes, “visit public schools anywhere in America today and you’re likely to see kids praying around the flagpole, sharing their faith with classmates, reading scriptures in free time, forming religious clubs.”

And silently petitioning for assistance on those math exams. 

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