We may hear a candidate or seated politician proclaim that they will “get prayer back into our public schools.” They fail to recognize how the “wall” between church and state became established. This history is clearly and accurately laid out in “The Battle Over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America” by Bruce J. Dierenfield and published by the University Press of Kansas in 2007.
Dierenfield is a Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York and also author of “The Civil Rights Movement” and other award-winning books. His extensive interviews with participants in the Engel v. Vitale U.S. Supreme Court decision provides extensive background on the challenges, the prior rulings and the political and historical context of the time.
His first chapters outline the history of the First Amendment. From the beginning, it was obvious to many founding fathers that while the Constitution laid out mechanisms for establishing laws and majority rule, there were also specific personal “rights” that should not be subject to change by a majority vote. Thomas Jefferson “sought to protect all religions….” But despite Jefferson having himself considered the First Amendment as having established a “wall” between church and state, it would take a century-and-a-half to be established in practice via court actions. And James Madison had appended the Bill of Rights protections in order to get the Constitution accepted. Many early settlers came from a European state that dictated one religion and constrained others. The First Amendment was intended to prevent such actions. It reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Public schools as we know them today did not exist before the 1830s. Bible readings became a common practice in smaller schools. But which Bible? It would be the King James Protestant version and not the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible with 73 books and different commentary. From an early time, this resulted in separate Catholic schools, and the dilemma of the government funding the Protestant but not the Catholic schools soon arose. In 1872, Ohio’s State Supreme Court ruled that even minimal religious instruction was inappropriate. In 1875, Pres. Grant gave a speech to “leave the matter of religion…to the family altar, the church, and the private school supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and State forever separate.” But in 1927, 25 states were awarding school credit for students taking Bible classes. Saluting the flag, reading prayers and pledging allegiance were considered vital for national cohesion and patriotism in the World War eras. But in 1943, the Supreme Court did strike down a West Virginia requirement that all students salute the flag.
Justice Hugo Black would write in the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education ruling that “no tax in any amount, large or small can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions….” This revived the “wall” metaphor in public discussion.
Chapters 4–7 carefully set the stage, trace the logic and reveal the outcome of the 1962 Engel v. Vitale that defined the full separation of church and state relative to school prayer. The New York Board of Regents had adopted a generic spoken prayer for use in public schools. In the Cold War era, it was assumed that saluting the flag and reciting a prayer would reinforce patriotism. To oppose school prayer following the era of McCarthyism caused a knee-jerk response that it was communist-inspired.
Aided by the ACLU, Harvard-educated William Butler was assigned to present the case. On April 3, 1962, oral arguments were presented to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 25, 1962 the Court “invalidated the regents’ prayer” and “voided laws in eleven states requiring religious exercises in public schools.” Under Chief Justice Warren, Justice Hugo Black was assigned to write the majority opinion (a six-to-one decision). Additional court rulings (Abington v. Schempp 1963 and Murray v. Curlett 1963) expanded the Engel decision. And three more cases in 1985, 1992 and 2000 clarified remaining circumstances.
Today we still hear nationalists proclaim that they will return prayer to public school. However, Dierenfield’s very readable historical narrative clearly provides the legal basis and history behind why such a “return” is no longer possible.