Defiance of the Court’s Ban on School Prayer

For much of the twentieth century, religion was an important part of the curriculum in many K–12 public schools. In the early 1960s, however, the Supreme Court held that prayer and Bible reading were unconstitutional in those schools. In Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 (1962), the Court held that a short nondenominational prayer composed by the New York Board of Regents and recommended by it for daily use in the public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court reasoned 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 a part of a religious program carried on by government.’’ The following year, in Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), the Court held that it was unconstitutional for school boards to require the reading of Bible passages or the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools. The Court declared: ‘‘In the relationship between man and religion, the state is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.’’ In both cases the Court forcefully asserted that the separation of church and state was best for government and for religion.

Among religious leaders, conservative Christian evangelicals and Roman Catholics were the primary opponents of the decisions. The vast majority of Protestant leaders and organizations approved of Engel and Schempp. Indeed, after Engel, thirty-one Protestant leaders published a manifesto asserting that the Court’s ruling protected ‘‘the integrity of the religious conscience and the proper function of religious and governmental institutions.’’ Jewish leaders, moved in part by a concern about their minority status in an overwhelmingly Christian nation, concurred in supporting public secularism.

Despite the opinions of many religious leaders, the majority of Americans disagreed with the Court. Indeed, the school prayer and Bible reading decisions were met with strong opposition and noncompliance from the public. The Supreme Court received five thousand letters denouncing Engel, and a Gallup Poll showed that 80 percent of Americans favored prayer in the public schools. Critics accused the Court of secularizing the United States and promoting communist atheism. Disturbed by the intensity of the public response to Engel, Justice Clark took the unusual step of denouncing press coverage of the case in an American Bar Association speech.

Engel and Schempp were openly defied in the South, where public officials encouraged the resistance, and in the Midwest. There was a greater degree of compliance with the decisions in the rest of the country. When school boards continued classroom religious practices in northern states, states attorneys general ordered them to stop doing so. Despite the resistance, Engel and Schempp worked changes in classroom practices. One national survey showed that the percentage of classrooms in which prayers were recited declined from 60 percent before 1962 to 28 percent in the 1964–1965 school year; the percentage in which Bible reading was taking place declined from 48 to 22 percent.

Congress also responded strongly to the Court’s decisions. Within days of the Engel decision, senators introduced five proposed constitutional amendments to overturn it, and the House received twenty-nine proposals to revoke the Court’s ruling. By 1975, 215 such amendments had been introduced in Congress. While none of those proposed amendments was successful (they were opposed by the majority of Protestant religious leaders and the Catholic Church eventually adopted a neutral stance), the proponents of school prayer did get Congress to enact the 1984 Equal Access Act. The act, which the Court upheld in Board of Education v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 247 (1990), provides that K–12 public schools must treat student religious groups who wish to use meeting rooms equally with nonreligious groups.

Those concerned about the diminishing role of religion in the United States have also tried to work around the Engel and Schempp decisions. More than twenty years after those decisions, twenty-five states permitted or required that a moment of silence be observed in public school classrooms. In Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985), the Supreme Court held that one such statute, a 1981 Alabama statute authorizing a period of silence ‘‘for meditation or voluntary prayer,’’ violated the Establishment Clause because it had no secular legislative purpose and was a poorly disguised effort to return prayer to public schools. More recently, the Court has sustained Establishment Clause challenges to prayers at public school graduations (Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 1992) and at high school football games (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 2000). In both cases the Court held that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in a religious exercise. Notwithstanding the Court’s consistent position banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools, noncompliance continues to be a problem.

DENISE C. MORGAN

References and Further Reading

  • Alley, Robert S. School Prayer: The Court, the Congress, and the First Amendment. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994.
  • Dent, George W., Jr., Religious Children, Secular Schools, Southern California Law Review 61 (1988): 4:864–942.
  • Jeffries, John C., Jr., and Ryan, James E., A Political History of the Establishment Clause, Michigan Law Review 100 (2001): 2:279–370.

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