Religion and American Public Schools

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Last Updated By Bill's Bible Basics :
February 16, 2017

The History of Prayer in Our Public Schools

Taken from :

The controversy over officially sponsored prayer in public schools did not begin in 1962, when the Supreme Court first ruled that such observances violate the Establishment Clause. It began more than one hundred years earlier, in the 1830s, when waves of Italian and Irish Catholic immigrants came to this country and objected to compulsory readings of the Protestant King James Bible and the recitation of Protestant prayers in most public schools. A bitter conflict erupted, including riots, the expulsion of Catholic children from public schools, the burning of convents, and even some deaths.

In the 1950s, as the religious diversity of our society increased, school prayer became a divisive issue once again. Now Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and atheist parents objected to Christian practices in the public schools.

Out of this conflict arose Engel v. Vitale, a 1962 case in which the Supreme Court ruled against officially sponsored and organized school prayer. "We think," wrote Justice Hugo L. Black for the court, "that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents' prayer [a nondenominational prayer created by the government], the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause." The following year, in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, the Court held that Bible readings in public schools also violate the First Amendment.

President John F. Kennedy, the country's first Catholic President, urged respect for the court's decision in Engel: "We have in this case a very easy remedy, and that is to pray ourselves. And I would think that it would be a welcome reminder to every American family that we can pray a good deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of our children."

Reprinted from ACLU Briefing Paper #3, Church and Stat

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