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When the court prohibited prayer

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The day when this essay was originally written, 2002-JUN-25, has been declared a day of mourning by the Texas Justice Foundation. It is the 40th anniversary of the Engel v. Vitale decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared unconstitutional the inclusion of state-sponsored school prayer as a part of instruction in public schools. 1,2

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Background information:

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 1950's, 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." 3

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." That is an unusual statement. One would expect that most of the 88% of adult Americans who identified themselves as Christians at that time would subscribe to the Board of Regent's 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. Such a minimal prayer would offend few theists. But one would expect significant opposition from others. For example:

bullet Atheists have no awareness of the existence of God;
bullet Agnostics are undecided about the existence of God;
bullet Buddhists generally have no belief in a personal God;
bullet Humanists base their beliefs and practices on secular considerations;
bullet Jews, because of centuries of Christian persecution, tend to oppose government involvement in religion;
bullet Some theists who object in principle to state-sponsored prayers in public schools because of the degree of compulsion which is inevitably present; and
bullet Many religious liberals rigorously defend the principle of separation of church and state, and would oppose school prayer on principle.

The Board of Regents appears to have considered such individuals to not be "men and women of good will" -- a stance that many people would consider arrogant and narrow-minded.

The Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9 of New Hyde Park, NY, instructed their school principal 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." 3 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 their 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:

bullet If the Supreme Court agreed with the parents, then state-mandated prayer in public schools would be unconstitutional everywhere in the U.S.
bullet 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.

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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 the Attorneys General of 22 states: Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and West Virginia.

The Board of Education argued that:

bullet The prayer was so generally worded that it was different from ordinary prayers; it was based on the country's "spiritual heritage."
bullet 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." 3

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:

bullet "...daily classroom invocation of God's blessings as prescribed in the Regents' prayer is a religious activity."
bullet 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."
bullet Many of 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.
bullet 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."
bullet "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."
bullet The First Amendment rests on the "belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion."
bullet History shows that many people lose "their respect for any religion that had relied upon the support of government to spread its faith."
bullet "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." 3

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Dissent by Mr. Justice Stewart:

He was the lone vote against the decision of the court. He wrote:

bullet "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."
bullet "...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."
bullet He described a number of instances where religion and the existence of God have been recognized by the government:
bullet Each day's session of the Supreme Court starts with the invocation: "God save the United States and this Honorable Court."
bullet The National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner" contains the words "Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation."
bullet The National Motto is "In God we Trust."
bullet The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag contains the words "one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
bullet The Declaration of Independence includes the phrase: "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence." 3

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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 in Congress than Engel."

Reaction was impressive. A few responses were:

bullet Privately funded billboards called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren.
bullet Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and Cardinal Spellman issued statements condemning the decision.
bullet Representative Rep. Frank Becker (NY) called the decision "The most tragic in the history of the United States."
bullet 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?"
bullet Hearings were held into school prayer by the House Judiciary Committee in 1964. They were published in three volumes, totaling 2,774 pages. 4

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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 schools 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." 5 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:

bullet Take Bibles or other religious texts with them on the school bus.
bullet Pray alone or in groups at the flagpole or elsewhere on school grounds.
bullet Pray in classrooms outside of regular teaching hours.
bullet Say grace and/or pray in a school cafeteria.
bullet 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.
bullet Students can wear T-shirts with religious text. They can wear religious jewelry (buttons, symbols, crosses, stars of David, pentacles, etc).
bullet 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 6 and American Civil Liberties Union 7 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 student 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."

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Is the prohibition of state-sponsored prayer in schools good or bad?

No consensus exists. An advertisement for the Emmy Award winning film "School Prayer: A community at war" illustrates the division in the country over this matter: "A Mississippi mother of six sues her local school district to remove intercom prayer and Bible classes from the public schools. Christian community members rally against her to protect their time-honored tradition of religious practices in the schools. Both sides claim they are fighting for religious freedom." 8

bullet Prayer is needed: Many conservative Christian and other groups feel that:
bullet School prayer had been a part of student life for centuries, until it was terminated by the Supreme Court. They want to restore this tradition and continue it into the future.
bullet The lack of school prayer has caused a general degeneration in the culture's morals and ethics. The downwards slide in behavior started about the time of the court decision, and may have been caused by it.
bullet Children need to have their faith reinforced throughout the day. Since they spend a great deal of their time at school, they need to pray there as well as at home.
bullet Prayer is dangerous: A variety of civil liberties and liberal religious groups oppose prayer:
bullet State-sponsored prayer inevitably marginalizes religious minorities. It implies that one type of religious belief is state supported, and that all other religions are invalid. Students are called devil worshipers, atheists, etc.
bullet The potential for harassment of religious minorities and thus for school violence increases.
bullet Students have the right to be free of the coercion of state-sponsored and captive-audience prayer.

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  1. Fred Jackson and Jody Brown, "In Remembrance of School Prayer: ACLU Attributes Notion of Effective Prayer to 'Radical Religious Right',", 2002-JUN-25, at: (This is only a temporary listing.)
  2. The Texas Justice Foundation is a conservative group which "provides free legal representation in landmark cases in protect individual rights, limit government to its appropriate role, and promote a better business climate for job growth in Texas." Their web site is at:
  3. U.S. Supreme Court, "Engel et al. v. Vitale et al.," 1962-JUN-25, at:
  4. Larry Pahl, "School prayer: When God is not enough," 1996-FEB, at:
  5. Richard Riley, Letter to school principals dated 1999-DEC-17, at:
  6. The Rutherford Institute has a web page at:  
  7. The American Civil Liberties Union has a section on student's rights at:
  8. "School Prayer: A community at war," at:

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Copyright 2002 by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created 2002-JUN-25
Last updated 2002-JUN-25

Author: B.A. Robinson

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