50 years later: High court's school prayer ruling still fuels religious liberty debate
1962 ruling still ignites passion
When Steven Engel and several other parents decided to sue the state of New York in 1958 over a state-composed prayer being recited in public schools, a culture war was ignited that still smolders today.
In an interview four decades later, Engel recalled the obscene phone calls, a cross burning and taunting of his children in his New Hyde Park community, which was in conflict over the prayer and his decision to fight it.
While the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Engel on June 25, 1962, the decision hardly put to rest the overarching issue of religion in public schools.
A year later, the high court banned Bible reading in state schools, then overturned a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. Rulings that prayers during school commencements and athletic events also violated the separation of church and state further fueled the secular-versus-faithful battle. Even unrelated disputes over abortion and health care mandates have emotional roots reaching back 50 years to a bland prayer composed by education officials in upstate New York.
"Engel is seen by some as the first salvo in this long-running battle between religious conservatives and people on the left" who were critical of religion in the public square, said David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Legal scholars agree the emotions generated by Engel are often misplaced, resulting in school officials overreacting to a student praying privately in the cafeteria or politicians calling for a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in public schools. The rancor and confusion has prompted parties on both sides of the school prayer debate to take a second look at the court's reasoning in the school prayer case and come up with consensus guidelines that allow religious expression in the classroom.
The 1962 Engel's case was not the high court's first foray into religion and public education. Previous decisions banned religious instruction by clergy in public schools, but allowed for it to occur off school property during the day. The first so-called "establishment clause" ruling regarding religion and public schools came in 1947 over busing children to both public and private schools.
About three years later, the New York State Board of Regents approved a prayer to be read by students in public schools: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”
Engel, who was Jewish, his wife and seven other parents sued, claiming the state-sponsored prayer went against their beliefs and religious practices and that requiring their children to recite it violated their First Amendment rights against government making a law "respecting an establishment of religion."
After the state courts found the prayer passed constitutional muster as long as it was voluntary, the parents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the state courts by finding the prayer violated the First Amendment by promoting a religious belief.
In writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black said government-composed prayers were a reason colonists sought religious freedom in America and that prohibiting state-sponsored prayers in public schools is not an act of hostility toward religion.
“It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance,” he wrote.
But the public had a different take on the 6-1 decision: It was seen as either an attack on religion or an opening to ban all forms of religious expression in schools and other public venues. The public interpretation launched a series of legal battles in a cultural and political war between the religious right and the secular left.
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