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.

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

  1. WHAT OTHER KIND OF PRAYER IS THERE??? You say this as though there are other prayers. God is the only one who hears and answers prayers, so why wouldn’t you want to be sure to pray a CHRISTAIN PRAYER. This way of thinking is exactly why there is no prayer in schools. It’s why abortion is legal, drugs are readily available and there is so much wrong in society today. I hope you are not a teacher, because what you believe would be a terrible thing to pass on to our children.

    • How is teaching children about freedoms, rights and liberties a bad thing? What people like you want is for your religion to be respected and damn everybody else.

      Let me add insult to injury here. Prove to me Christianity is the one true religion. You can’t, you believe it is, and that is fine FOR YOU. All religions say they are the 1 true religion. Remember the Christian Bible was screwed together on the order of a Pagan Emperor who was trying to unify his kingdom, many books were excluded because they didn’t say what he wanted people to believe. The penalty was death for going against his order. Sounds pretty Christian to me.

      • Any religion that believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and died for the sins of the world is the true religion, there’s no other way! No one can get to God unless you go through His Son.

      • Did you know that Islam also believes in Jesus Christ? Only difference is Christian faith believes him to be the messiah. Islam also holds Jesus in high regard and believes he will descend from heaven and fight the final battle, and judgment.

        • The difference between Islam and Christianity is that Jesus is God’s one and ONLY son, who dies for our sins and came back to life (conquering death) in order that we may have eternal life after this life. It does no one any good to believe that there was a man named Jesus. Everyone believes/knows this. What makes the difference is that Christians have a real relationship with Him. They don’t just know about Him. They KNOW Him personally!! That’s the difference and it’s a HUGE difference. Christians don’t only believe He is the Messiah…they KNOW He is.

        • Did you know there is new scholarship that points to the start of what is today called Islam, not to Mecca but the the Nabatean empire? Do you know that people conquered during the early Arab uprising spoke not of Islam, a new book or a new prophet? Islam is a lie perpetrated on the world.

          So what if they hold Jesus in high regard or think he is coming back. Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses claim Jesus too. Mormon claim he is the spirit brother of Lucifer and Jehovah Witnesses claim he is Michael the archangel. The Bible clearly warns if anyone preaches another gospel or another Jesus, them them be anathema.

          Islam is a syncretistic combination of Christianity, Judaism and paganism.

  2. Dave, first of all, in defense of Ms. Wu, you say she mentioned “characteristics of Christ”. Have you ever looked into other world religions? Spoiler alert; many of Jesus’ actions are very similar to, if not the exact same, as the actions of other religions deities. How can one be 100% positive their’s is the 1 true and correct religion.

    I’ve been around the world, literally (twice). I’ve seen other religions in action. I’ll be damned if I can tell any real difference. Bare in mind, I was raised Christian (Protestant), and my father was a Church Elder. The last conversation we had concerning religion he told me your religious beliefs are based on faith. Faith in what you are reading and being told is the truth. That’s all religion is, a BELIEF! Nothing more, nothing less.

    • Every founder of every other religion is dead. You have to explain the empty tomb. You have to explain why men who feared for their lives at the during and after the crucifixion, deserting Jesus, suddenly become bold and proclaimed the gospel to the very people who had Jesus crucified.

      You claim belief and nothing more. It really isn’t that simple. Actually, it depends on the object of that belief. Believe in the wrong thing and your are doomed. Believe in the right thing and your are saved. Read Seeking Allah Finding Jesus if you want to see a good illustration of what one man found when exploring Christianity while being a devote Muslim.

  3. There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that relates to the Bible, nor any other religion. Our Constitution is purely secular as freedom of religion can only take place under a secular government. When the term “God” is used in other founding documents (God is not mentioned in the Constitution) it is never applied to a specific deity.

    • To Joe & Tom – Sir, you are partially correct, but you are greatly wrong! Everyone that signed the Constitution did so under, “In the year of our Lord…” This was a specific Deity – the Lord Jesus Christ, the sinless lamb of God foretold in the Jewish scriptures before Jesus was born with over 300 prophecies describing in strong detail the birth, life and death of the Messiah.

      • AZSixGuns,
        Have you read the Constitution? It clearly states: From Article VI, Clause 3; “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

        From the 1st Amendment; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

        These are the only 2 mentions of religion, any type of religion, made in the Constitution. Besides, forcing your religious views on someone of a different faith IS NOT religious freedom. Yes all of the signers of the U.S Constitution were of one Christian denomination or another, so the Constitution was signed under the words “In the year of our Lord”. That DOES NOT establish the United States as a Christian nation. Do me a favor, before you reply, talk to a Constitutional Law Professor, and ask them about it. Check it out at: law.harvard.edu, law.cornell.edu, or constitution.congress.gov.

  4. Fannie Beiler on March 1, 2020 at 7:50 am you wrote: The Holy Bible and the Lord’s Prayer are not connected with religion. Religion is man’s interpretation of the Holy Bible, and the comment; on February 27, 2020 at 12:13 pm you said: Find on youtube: The devastation effects when prayer was removed from school.

    Either 1) you don’t want to read, or 2) you can’t. The Constitution very clearly RESTRICTS the federal government from meddling in an individuals religious beliefs, or non-beliefs. They CAN NOT support or deny ANY religious practices, provided they do not break any laws.

    The Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale ruled school sponsored/mandatory prayer is Un-Constitutional, it WAS NOT removed from school. Children have the right to pray, have religious discussions, etc, provided it does not interfere with the course of instruction and is not disruptive, but again, it can not be made mandatory. This ruling applies to ALL religions.

    • You wrote, “The Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale ruled school sponsored/mandatory prayer is Un-Constitutional, it WAS NOT removed from school.”

      Then why have coaches been fired for praying with their teams? Those praying were not forced or coerced.

      And, your point about it applying to all religions is not true as we see Islam being taught and allowances being made for it in schools. There have been suits brought by parents because of this. So, your statement is in error.

  5. Please, before you go spouting off about them “taking” prayer out of school, do yourself a favor, read 2 documents.

    1st, READ the U.S. Constitution. Article VI, Clause 3 and the 1st Amendment are the only parts of the Constitution to even mention religion.

    2nd, READ the U.S Supreme Court ruling on Engel v. Vitale @ either supremecourt.gov uscourts.gov.

    You, if you open your eyes and mind, and shut your mouth long enough to read these documents, you will clearly see two things;
    1) The U.S was NOT founded as a Christian nation. If it were, anyone of a different religious belief would either, a) not be allowed to be in this country, or b) they would be a 2nd class citizen.

    2) God was NEVER “taken out” of school. The Supreme Court’s ruling clearly states “mandatory” prayer is Unconstitutional.

    • Don’t be Bull horn guy- standing at the corner shouting. No one listens to bull horn guy. They are just a bully. If you want people to listen you engage conversation not shout at each other.

  6. No we know you are a fool, unwise! I agree about not making it forced for love is not forced. Yet, there is nothing wrong with making Bible study an elective in a country that was founded on said Bible. Everything else is well, such as allowing prayer, the moment of silence and the pledge of allegiance.

    • Dave, first please show me in the Constitution were the United States was founded on “said Bible”. You can’t, because we were not founded on the Bible, or any other religious belief. Look up James Madison, the father of our Constitution. He, with assistance from Thomas Jefferson, wrote most of our Constitution and the original Bill of Rights. Madison VERY clearly out lined the 1st Amendment in an address to Congress when the Constitution was put up for ratification.

      Second; the U.S Supreme Court DID NOT ban prayer in school. They declared school-sponsored prayers unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale.

      And before you go off half-cocked, I spent the first part of my adult life in the Marine Corps, sworn to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, from all enemies, both foreign and domestic”. the second part of my adult life in law enforcement, where I protected the people of this country from the morons who wouldn’t abide by that very Constitution.

      • I don’t want to start a fight, just simply seeing other people’s opinions. From my understanding of history, the United States of America was founded on Biblical values. Though it is not explicitly stated “the Bible”, we are still grouped together as one nation under God. As a U.S. Marine, you should understand that. My father served as a U.S. Marine for 25 years and now serves as a pilot for emergency medical transportation. As a Marine, he swore to fight under God for the safety of his country and for the defense of the Constitution. How is it fair to say that the Constitution was not Biblical?

        • Jennie, “One nation under God” was not coined until the 1950’s. James Madison, the man who wrote our Constitution, was an Episcopalian, but argued very successfully against establishing a single religion for every citizen of the United States. Of the more than 200 books, letters and documents he referenced while writing the Constitution, the Bible is NOT listed as one of them.

          As for your father, I am grateful for his 25 years of service. It shows a level of loyalty and love of this country, I’m afraid has dwindled slightly in recent years. But you check the oath of enlistment (for your father that would be the officers oath) @ NAVPERS 1070/601 (Rev.9-99) . Your father swore an oath to protect and defend the CONSTITUTION of the United States, not the Bible. NOWHERE in that oath does it state allegiance to God. The closing words are “So help me God”, these words are omitted if the person taking the oath is of a religion other than Christianity.

          • Did not President James Madison say, ” We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government. Far from it. We have staked the future upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves and to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God? “

      • You know what. You were created by the Lord God himself. Look around, everything you have and see including the breath you breathe are all gifts from your maker. The Bible is a guide for all to read. It doesn’t matter what people put into place, God is still in charge. Not only has prayer been taken out of schools but abortions, better defined as murder is now legal. Drugs are so bad that they have been legalized. So really can you not see what has happened here. Where are the Ten Commandments? God’s law is the law and we would do good to follow it. Jesus is coming back and everything we are witnessing clarifies that very fact. Better get ready and stop reading all those man made books and turn to the perfect Word of God!!

        • Amen! Unfortunately the devil has deceived so many that, they don’t believe he exist, and if he can convince people that he doesn’t exist then the same people won’t believe that there is a Savior Jesus the Christ!!, because of hardened hearts. Pharoah was witness to the plagues of Egypt and still would not yield, unfortunately there are still many who have the same kind of hearts and won’t change, the best we can do is to pray for those lost souls that they will turn before it’s too late. God doesn’t want a single soul to go to hell but we all have free will, and thus have a choice where we spend eternity. I love all of you in this chat and pray for everyone.. that is all

  7. We should always use our 1st Amendment rights which are freedom of religion and freedom of the press. No I do not force my Christian views on anyone but this Country was founded on Christian principals and the first text book was The Holy Bible! Most importantly, people came to America so they could Worship God in freedom!

    • Then that same people turned around and tried to make people believe like they did.
      Freedom of religion means freedom of religion for everyone.

      • Reading the Bible and saying the Lord’s prayer is not forcing anyone to believe it. The Bible is the Lord’s Word and saying the Lord’s prayer is saying His Words. These two have nothing to do with religion.

        • Fannie you are missing the point, by more than a mile. Having ANYONE reciting the Lords Prayer, or any prayer for that matter IS a violation of that person’s 1st Amendment rights. It is FREEDOM OF RELIGION, not free to do it regardless of whether you agree with it or not. That is not how it goes. As a retired US Marine and combat veteran, I want people to enjoy the rights, not only I, but all 3 of my son’s and 19 other family members were willing to pay a price most people don’t want to think about, fought willingly to give them. And it is NOBODY’S business how they worship or not.

          • The Holy Bible and the Lord’s Prayer are not connected with religion. Religion is man’s interpretation of the Holy Bible.

          • Thank you for your service. But it is God’s business. He sacrificed more than any of us ever have. His Son not only served, but He died for everyone, not just you or I, but for the entire world! Would you sacrifice one of your sons for so many, that they might be saved? He had to pay a debt that He didn’t owe and we can never repay. He is our only hope in this godless time. Just remember who the enemy is. It’s not your neighbor or even the government it is satan who came here to kill, steal and destroy. I think he seems to be doing a pretty good job of it here in the USA. God loves you, not like the world does. He loves you enough to save you!

  8. Karla – Students are ALLOWED to pray, but they cannot be FORCED to pray. There is no need to put prayer “back” in schools, it is already allowed, what you seem to want is to CO-ERCE students to say a Christian prayer, and ONLY a Christian prayer. Please do tell, under our forced Christian prayer plan, how do you plan on handling Jewish students who REFUSE to participate in Christian prayers, or Jewish students who say JEWISH prayers instead ?

  9. The SCOTUS’ mistake was in going tribal. Rather It could have looked at that which all of good will share. “Ethical monotheism” is the principle that unites people of good will. . . the one principle, not necessarily the one god.

    ”Love your neighbor as yourself” is found in ALL faiths. The building blocks of L-Y-N-A-Y are the Ten Commandments or similar sets of ethical principles. All faiths call for respect and devotion to G-d, or to the wisdom of the elders. All relate honor and respect for parents as the surrogate for one’s relationship to the higher authority. All religions condemn killing, stealing, faithless marriages, libeling others, and lusting for what others have. We are all joined by One Principle.

    Many schools use a moment of silence in their morning exercises. How does the student use their moment of silence? It is up to them and their parents. It would be nice if they (& we) started the day with considering L-Y-N-A-Y.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

    • You just mentioned the characteristics of Christ. You dont believe because you do not see it right in front of you. I did not believe New York city was awesome until I went and saw it firsthand. Furthermore, it took me a long time to get there and all the great thoughts on the trip up never came close to my miraculous arrival to times square.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

    • Hallelujah! You are a person of common sense and that is a gift from God. I would like to join you in this fight for freedom to pray and keep our right of free speech no matter what our religious principles and preferences are.
      We need the freedom to pray anywhere at anytime and it needs to start with our young children.
      After all there is freedom to smoke pot anywhere at anytime. I ask all the leaders of this democracy, “What will make our next generation strong and moral, prayer or smoking pot?”

      • I’m sorry Patricia, but I don’t believe that you understand what has been said in this article! You ARE allowed to pray anywhere, and anytime, THE ONLY OPPOSITION, is that the government should not be sponsoring any of the prayers or supporting it. Your right to the freedom of speech is still intact with you no matter what, and is not prohibited by the discussion made in Engel v. Vitale.

    • Karla, please tell me how being forced to do something, you do not believe in is not a bad thing. What would it hurt? I’ll tell you, How would you like your rights trampled to make somebody else happy, just so they wouldn’t have their feelings hurt?

      You’re talking about forcing “Christian Values” on non-Christians. How is that not harmful? I’ll answer that for you; You would be taking away that individuals right to freedom of religion, that’s how it’s harmful.

      Once the government starts taking peoples rights away, what comes next? I don’t want to see what happens then, because I know what happens next. America would become a two-bit dictatorship. If that’s what you want, go live somewhere else.

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