School Prayer - A Legacy of First Amendment Revision
School Prayer was removed from the U.S. public education system by slowly changing the meaning of the First Amendment through a number of court cases over several decades. The following is a summary of three pivotal cases in the early 1960's:
"The Regent's School Prayer" (Engel v. Vitale, 1962)
The New York education system adopted a school prayer to be said before the start of each day's classes. This prayer promoted good moral character, provided spiritual training, and helped combat juvenile delinquency. The regents wrote a school prayer that was non-sectarian or denominational. In fact, it was so bland that it became known as the "to whom it may concern prayer." Here it is: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."
Justice Hugo Black wrote the following for the majority, "It is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers… the Regent's prayer are inconsistent both with the purposes of the Establishment Clause and the Establishment Clause itself." This ruling did not stop school prayer completely, only those schools that had a regent style prayer. Voluntary prayer was still permitted.
Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina said, "I should like to ask whether we would be far wrong in saying that in this decision the Supreme Court has held that God is unconstitutional and for that reason the public school must be segregated against Him?" John Bennett, Dean of Union Theological Seminary continued, "If the Court in the name of religious liberty tries to keep a lid on religious expression and teaching both in the public schools and also in connection with experiments that involve cooperation with public schools, it will drive all religious communities to the establishment of parochial schools, much against the will of many, and to the great detriment of public schools and probably of the quality of education." At the time there were just a handful of Protestant schools in the country. Today, they number in the thousands.
"School Prayer" (Murray v. Curlett, 1963)
School prayer was the focus of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a militant left wing atheist with close ties to the American Communist Party, when she filed a lawsuit against the school board of Baltimore. The local court judge, J. Gilbert Pendergast, dismissed the petition stating, "It is abundantly clear that petitioners' real objective is to drive every concept of religion out of the public school system." The case went to the Maryland Court of Appeals, and the court ruled, "Neither the First nor the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to stifle all rapport between religion and government."
The "School Prayer" case then made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Leonard Kerpelman addressed the court saying prayer in the public schools had been tolerated for so long that it had become traditional and that anything that is unconstitutional does not become constitutional through tradition. He went on to say the Constitution had erected a "wall of separation" between church and state, at which point Justice Potter Steward interrupted, asking where this wording appears. Kerpelman was stumped and an embarrassing silence followed. When he regained his composure, he stated that the text was not explicit on the point but that it had been interpreted to mean so.
Remarkably, the National Council of Churches and several Jewish organizations favored Madalyn O'Hair's case! Not a single Christian organization filed a brief in support of school prayer. The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in favor of abolishing school prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Justice Tom Clark wrote, "Religious freedom, it has long been recognized that government must be neutral and, while protecting all, must prefer none and disparage none." The federal government considers atheism to be a religion, and this Supreme Court rulingfavoredatheism, at the expense of the Christian majority.
"School Prayer & Bible Reading" (Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 1963)
The Pennsylvania school system complied with a state law requiring that ten verses of scripture be read every day. The readings were without comment and any student could request to be excused. This case came to the Supreme Court at the same time as the Murray v. Curlett case, and the court ruled on them together. In a nutshell, the court's ruling stated that School Prayer and Bible reading were violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In ironic fashion, the court established a secular religion for our school system, thus violating the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment.
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