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How the fight over school prayer became a battle for the soul of the nation

Two Supreme Court decisions from the 1960s ignited a battle over school prayer and the establishment clause that rages to this day.

SHARE How the fight over school prayer became a battle for the soul of the nation

Ian Sullivan for the Deseret News

Editor’s note: The Supreme Court on Jun 27 ruled that a school’s effort to stop a football coach from praying on the field after games violated the First Amendment.

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.

“This was a major shock to many religious conservatives,” Green says.

And by that point, there was a growing concern over the Supreme Court’s power over civic affairs. Rulings like Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which desegregated public schools, had led some to claim the justices were more interested in controlling the country than interpreting the Constitution. The school prayer rulings amplified that concern.

“I read one place that (the ruling on the regents’ prayer) produced more hostile letters to the court than any decision in decades,” Smith says. 

In addition to damaging the Supreme Court’s reputation, the school prayer rulings in the 1960s derailed a growing consensus around the establishment clause. Prior to that, conservatives and liberals alike were coming to accept the idea that the First Amendment’s ban on establishing a state religion mandated a broader separation of church and state, Green says.

Under this broader vision of the establishment clause, the government was prohibited not just from choosing an official religion, but also from privileging certain religious institutions and practices over others. It couldn’t force citizens to attend a specific church or say only certain prayers. It had to remain a neutral actor in the realm of faith.

“In the Protestant community, the concept was pretty roundly supported,” at least in the context of school funding debates, Green says.

But for many of these same Americans, the Supreme Court’s conclusion that the establishment clause also outlawed certain forms of school prayer and Bible reading was a bridge too far. They felt the court had gone beyond ensuring the government was neutral and essentially evicted faith from the public square. “The fear was that the court was adopting a model of secularism over religious pluralism,” Green says.

That fear helps explain why conflict over school prayer has become a full-fledged culture war over the past 60 years. To this day, Americans, including legal experts, don’t agree on whether the Supreme Court’s rulings in the 1960s represented an attack on faith or an embrace of religious freedom in its fullest form, Smith says. 

“A lot of our cultural division dates back to that time,” he says.

So does much of the ongoing tension over the establishment clause, says Richard Garnett, professor of law and political science at the University of Notre Dame. In the decades since the 1960s, increasingly contentious claims have been made about what it means to separate church and state, including in this year’s praying football coach case.

“In my view, I don’t think it’s a good idea for anybody to put people in a position where they feel a kind of subtle pressure to engage in a religious activity they don’t support. But I don’t think you can use the establishment clause as a way of policing that,” he says. 

On its path to the U.S. Supreme Court docket, the New York prayer case made a stop on the desk of state Supreme Court Judge Bernard S. Meyer in 1959. Meyer, according to Smith, was no fan of school prayer. He initially wrote an opinion blocking the practice before changing his mind.

“In the end, he wrote a long opinion ... saying the prayer was not unconstitutional. He thought you couldn’t draw that conclusion based on our history and law,” Smith says.

However, the decision emphasized that schools should take pains to accommodate religious diversity. Students need to know the prayer is optional, Meyer wrote, and that they’ll have teachers’ support if they decide to say no.

The ruling “wasn’t a perfect solution” to a difficult case, since it assumed young students were more resistant to peer pressure than they probably are, Smith says. Still, he can’t help but wonder if the country would have been better off if the case had ended there.

The Supreme Court’s eventual ruling did more to protect students, but it also tore the country apart. We might have been able to avoid a culture war, Smith says, if the justices had made it clear that schools, and other public spaces, don’t have to be totally secular.

“If the cases had been decided that way, the result with respect to school prayer might have been the same, but it wouldn’t have had the symbolic effect of reading secularism into the establishment clause as essentially the meaning of America,” he says.

As it stands, the court’s school prayer rulings exacerbated tension over how to apply the establishment clause and the true meaning of church-state separation. It feels as if they also led Americans to give up on working through those tensions on their own, Smith says.

“Whatever you think the best solution is, I think we can agree there’s too much judicial involvement. These things get handled by the courts instead of communities talking with each other,” he says.

Green, on the other hand, believes it was good and necessary for the Supreme Court to take a stand against certain kinds of school prayers. In the educational context and elsewhere, people have a blind spot when it comes to understanding the experience of minority religious communities, he says.

“The court had to say, ‘This prayer may be nonsectarian for you, but it’s sectarian for your neighbors,’” Green says.

In his mind, ongoing conflict over school prayer was all but inevitable. Even if the Supreme Court had ruled differently in the 1960s, we’d likely still be fighting about church-state separation today.

“This issue is easily politicized,” Green says, since it exposes conflicting ideas about how religious the country is meant to be. 

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.