50 years later, how school-prayer ruling changed America

Fifty years ago this week, on June 25, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court declared school-sponsored prayers unconstitutional in the landmark case Engel v. Vitale.

Public outrage was immediate and widespread. For millions of Americans, the Court had “kicked God out of the schools,” to use a phrase that has entered the culture-war lexicon.

Five decades later, Engel continues to be reviled by a good number of televangelists and politicians who take every opportunity to rail against the “godless public schools.” Eliminating school-sponsored prayer, they argue, set America on the road to moral and spiritual ruin.

Over the years, the absence of “school prayer” has been linked to almost every social ill, from schoolhouse shootings to drug addiction.

One popular YouTube video asks why God doesn’t do something about the terrible things happening to our students in public schools — and a deep voice replies in ominous tones, “I am not allowed in schools.”

That the high court’s prayer ruling is to blame for America’s decline makes a compelling narrative, raising millions of dollars for advocacy groups year after year.

But here’s the catch: It isn’t true.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: The moral state of the union can’t be correlated to the frequency of government prayers in schools or anywhere else. After all, in the era of daily teacher-led prayers, America had any number of social ills, including segregated public schools.

Just as it would be absurd to blame teacher-led prayer for racism or other moral failures in the 1950s, it makes no sense to blame the absence of such prayers for our moral failures today.

But the Big Lie in the school-prayer debate is the false charge that the Supreme Court expelled God or eliminated praying from public schools. In reality, the Court has never banned prayers in schools — in Engel or in any other decision.

Instead, the Court ruled that, under the establishment clause of the First Amendment, “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.”

In other words, state-sponsored prayers in schools are unconstitutional. Students, on the other hand, are fully free to pray in public schools — alone or in groups, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

It’s true that in the aftermath of the Engel decision, some school administrators took things too far by prohibiting constitutionally protected student religious expression. Of course, other administrators and school boards practiced civil disobedience by continuing school-sponsored religious practices in defiance of the Court’s ruling.

But in recent decades, most public school officials have begun to get religion — and prayer — right. They (finally) understand the difference between government speech promoting religion — which the establishment clause prohibits — and student religious speech, which the free-exercise and free-speech clauses protect.

Visit most public schools today and you are likely to see students praying around the flagpole, attending religious club meetings, giving each other religious literature, saying grace before lunch, talking about their faith in class discussions and in other ways expressing their religious convictions.

In fact, there is more student religious expression in public schools today than at any time since the 19th century. Far from being “kicked out,” God goes to school today through the First Amendment door.

Critics of the Court’s ruling in Engel v. Vitale do have one thing right: The decision changed America — just not in the way they think.

Gone are the days when one faith (historically Protestant Christianity) dominated the public schools and the public square. Today, thanks in no small measure to Engel, we are closer than ever to the full religious freedom envisioned by the First Amendment — a level playing field for people of all faiths and none.

4 thoughts on “50 years later, how school-prayer ruling changed America

  1. Karla, there is no “spin on it”. There was however, a supreme court ruling that it was unconstitutional and trampled on kids rights, their freedom of or from religion. While you believe school has gone to hell since prayer was taken out, nothing could be further from the truth. Prayer was NOT TAKEN OUT. The ruling simply meant that no one can be FORCED to pray to someone elses deity. This has been more difficult in small towns like mine where the majority of folks are Christian. If this is you, how would you like it if your children were forced to pray every morning but only if they took turns praying to other gods.. Muslim, Hindu, etc.. Evangelicals would be even more vocal!! It seems to me that Christians just want to force their God on everyone else. They either have a hard time understanding just what they are asking or they believe they are superior.

  2. I’m not christian. I’m a perfectly fine human being who serves the community, is advanced in academics, knows right from wrong. Also, there are multiple religions. Which religious prayer would schools have then? We also say the pledge every day; serves the same purpose that you stated as a prayer would. Also there are some cases where school shooters were christian.

    People are allowed to pray if they want to. What you say is forcing people, including atheists and people of other religions, to pray. No offense to Christianity, I’d like to keep my freedom to not say things I don’t believe in and have to pretend I do.

    Not sponsored religion isn’t the problem here. Its how people are taught, by knowing whats right and wrong, what people should or shouldn’t do, respect, responsibility, integrity, excellence, caring, generosity, etc. These are not necessarily religious; they can be taught to anyone, separate of religion.

  3. Taking prayer out of the school hasn’t made the school stronger or weaker? Has it helped or destroyed our school system? I will prefer facts and statistics rather than opinions thank you.

  4. Sorry you can put any amount of spin on it that you want, but the bottom line is when prayer was taken out of schools there is a documented steady downward decline in behavior and academics in schools. Let’s put that theory to the test by putting prayer back in school. What I find really weird about this is, if this really is breaking their hearts,as it should, WHY IN THE WORLD would having prayers reintroduced into the schools be such a bad thing?! I think we’re desperate for an answer here, and introducing prayer seems like a fairly affordable , harmless and easily implemented idea. What could it hurt?! Why does it bother people SO much that they are willing to continue to risk the violent deaths of children , in order to “prove” that they are right? It really seems that what they are afraid of is that Christian morals and prayer might actually work and they will lose their real battle-to bully and silence the religious freedom of anyone who doesn’t believe as they do!

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