50 years of prayer-free schools! Well…

That’s a stretch. But 50 years ago today, in the Engel v. Vitale decision, the US Supreme Court declared that government-written prayers were not to be recited in public schools and were an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause.

It all started because…

The respondent Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9, New Hyde Park, New York, acting in its official capacity under state law, directed the School District’s principal to cause the following prayer to be said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day:

    “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

This daily procedure was adopted on the recommendation of the State Board of Regents, a governmental agency created by the State Constitution to which the New York Legislature has granted broad supervisory, executive, and [370 U.S. 421, 423] legislative powers over the State’s public school system. 1 These state officials composed the prayer which they recommended and published as a part of their “Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training in the Schools,” saying: “We believe 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.”

As a result of this, and other cases following it, government-sponsored prayer in public schools has consistently been held as unconstitutional. Religious conservatives have loved to distort the facts about this case, claiming that it meant that students were no longer allowed to pray in schools and making such grandiose proclamations as that God had been kicked out of American schools. Never mind that students are still welcome to practice their faith in their private time as they wish, and form religious student groups (so long as they don’t have the imprimatur of officiality); this was another instance of a huge minority spinning a removal of its monopoly on society as an attack on their faith.

Numerous recent cases show that some schools love to push their privilege and flaunt this ruling. In some cases, such as the ban on official prayers that went into effect before school football games at Soddy-Daisy High School in Tennessee, people who want to pray will form their own little unofficial group of pray-ers. And that’s fine! They’re allowed to, as long as it isn’t an officially government-sanctioned event. But they don’t seem to understand the distinction, as evidenced by the words of the city commissioner of Soddy-Daisy:

Soddy-Daisy Mayor Gene Shipley and Commissioner Jim Adams joined the prayer group.

“I’m ready to defy Washington and the Supreme Court,” Adams said. “I don’t have a problem with it at all.”

It’s not about you having a right to pray. It’s about you making prayer part of a government-sanctioned event. That’s it. It’s the same reason that sectarian invocations in city council meetings are unconstitutional as well, but a private group organizing a prayer before the same meetings off of city property isn’t.

Thankfully, there are a few shining examples of where the law has won out over the schools (which wasn’t necessary in Soddy Daisy, since they recognized that the prayer was unconstitutional). The saga of Jessica Ahlquist and the Cranston (Rhode Island) High School West official school prayer played out exactly as the law prescribes, though it earned Jessica an astonishing amount of hatred and vilification. Former Bastrop, Louisiana high schooler Damon Fowler was kicked out of his house and forced to go live with his sister after speaking out against an official school prayer at his graduation ceremony, which was officially removed from the program (but then unofficially kept in anyway).

I think we’re going to see this become a bigger issue in the future, as more and more millennials give up on organized religion and fight for the separation of church and state rather than against it.

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