The following is excerpted from the Church Newsroom. To read the full report, CLICK HERE.
When Steven Smith reflects on the magnitude of the modern school prayer conflict, he thinks about how it all started with a prayer that was just a sentence long.
That prayer, produced by the New York board of regents in the early 1950s, had been carefully crafted to avoid causing offense. It was meant to boost public schoolchildren’s moral education, not to challenge whatever their parents or pastors had taught them about God.
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country,” the prayer text read.
But soon after it became an optional part of the school day, parents from a variety of religious backgrounds lodged complaints. And in the early 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.
The legal question in front of the court was whether a government-penned school prayer violated the Constitution’s establishment clause. However, in answering that query, the justices also had to weigh a much bigger question about how religious the American government was allowed to be.
“The cynical view is how much good could a prayer that takes 15 seconds to say really do, but it was quite symbolic to people. It felt to many like the answer to whether we do or don’t have a prayer in school could tell you a lot about the character … of our republic,” says Smith, a law professor and co-executive director of the Institute for Law and Religion at the University of San Diego.
For that reason and others, the court’s nearly unanimous ruling against the regents’ prayer in 1962 was met with widespread pushback. The outcry grew even louder when, a year later, the justices doubled-down on their decision in a ruling stating that Bible readings in public schools also violated the establishment clause.
Those two decisions ignited a battle over school prayer and the establishment clause that rages to this day. On one side are those who say the Founders approved and even embraced a variety of government displays of faith, while, on the other, people believe the country only lives up to its founding vision when there’s a clear wall between church and state.
“You have people in good faith disagreeing about the fundamental vision of the character of America,” Smith says. “And both sides have solid reasons” for thinking what they do.
To understand the fallout from the Supreme Court’s prayer rulings in the 1960s, it’s important to remember what else the country was going through during that time. It was the height of the Cold War and the civil rights movement, two events that reshaped Americans’ sense of themselves.
As part of the battle against “godless communism,” the United States had amped up its religious brand, says Steven K. Green, a law professor and director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University. Just a few years before the Supreme Court heard the prayer case, “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” became the national motto. “We went out of our way to align American democracy with God,” he says.
Under those conditions, setting aside time for prayer during the school day was seen by many as more than an acknowledgment of the needs of people of faith. It was also a branding exercise, an activity that strengthened America’s moral edge.
“School prayer has always been very symbolic even to people who might not care much about prayer,” Smith says.
Even Catholic leaders, who had long fought against Protestant control of public schooling, had come to see Protestant-led prayer and Bible reading as a good thing. “By that time, they saw them as a little bit of religion in public education that was needed,” Green says.
To be clear, when the Supreme Court ruled, only around 40% of schools continued to lead students in formal religious practices, according to Green. But many Americans still experienced the court’s rulings on school prayer as an attack on their values.
To read the full report, CLICK HERE.