RELIGION AND PRAYER IN U.S. PUBLIC SCHOOLS
When the court prohibited prayer
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
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
"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:
||Atheists have no awareness of the existence of God;
||Agnostics are undecided about the existence of God;
||Buddhists generally have no belief in a personal God;
||Humanists base their beliefs and practices on secular considerations;
||Jews, because of centuries of Christian
persecution, tend to oppose government involvement in religion;
||Some theists who object in principle to state-sponsored prayers in public
schools because of the degree of compulsion which is inevitably present; and
||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:
||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 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:
||The prayer was so generally worded that it 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." 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:
||"...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 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
||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
Dissent by Mr. Justice Stewart:
He was the lone vote against the decision of the court. He wrote:
||"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
||"...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." 3
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:
||Privately funded billboards called for the impeachment of Chief Justice
||Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and Cardinal Spellman issued
condemning the decision.
||Representative Rep. 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
||Hearings were held into school prayer by the House Judiciary Committee in 1964. They
were published in three volumes, totaling 2,774 pages. 4
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
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 flagpole 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 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."
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
||Prayer is needed: Many conservative Christian and other groups feel
||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 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.
||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.
||Prayer is dangerous: A variety of civil liberties and liberal
religious groups oppose prayer:|
||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,
||The potential for harassment of religious minorities and thus for school violence increases.
||Students have the right to be free of the coercion of state-sponsored
and captive-audience prayer.
Fred Jackson and Jody Brown, "In Remembrance of School Prayer: ACLU
Attributes Notion of Effective Prayer to 'Radical Religious Right',"
ChristianWebSite.com, 2002-JUN-25, at:
http://headlines.agapepress.org/users/botcw/botcw1.asp (This is only a
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:
U.S. Supreme Court, "Engel et al. v. Vitale et al.," 1962-JUN-25,
Larry Pahl, "School prayer: When God is not enough," 1996-FEB, at:
Richard Riley, Letter to school principals dated 1999-DEC-17, at:
The Rutherford Institute has a web page at: http://www.rutherford.org/
The American Civil Liberties Union has a section on student's rights at:
"School Prayer: A community at war," at:
Copyright 2002 by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2002-JUN-25
Author: B.A. Robinson