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.
"Within a decade, religious expression was pushed out of public schools in a way that was really wrong," said Kim Colby, senior counsel with the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. "Too many school administrators took that decision as a green light to try to eradicate religion from public schools."
Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, explained that instead of reading the ruling to mean government is neutral on religion, government officials and others overread Black's opinion to mean government should be hostile toward religious expression of any kind in schools, state houses and Congress.
The ACLU, which did not respond to a request for comment on this story, says on its website that school prayer is the most hotly debated and misunderstood issue in the debate on religion in schools. While the organization fights efforts to "reintroduce religion" in schools, it says students have a right to freely express and exercise their faith.
While nearly a dozen rulings have come down since Engel to further clarify the role of religion in the public square, few issues bring the emotions to the surface in church-state battles like prayer and schools.
"Thinking about the transcendent is a natural experience and has been since the human experience began," Rassbach said. "And when people start to deny those things, that creates a reaction, and that's why you see the fights."
A new model
While the high court upheld prayer and religious expression in government and other public settings, schools were held under a special scrutiny by the justices.
"Engel established this idea that you have to be very careful about religious activities in public schools," Masci, of the Pew Forum, said. "Students are minors, and teachers and administrators are authority figures with power over the students in what they do and think."
Anything from musical selections at a commencement exercise to passing out Christmas candy made its way into the federal court system to determine if the state was pushing too hard or not enough against religious expression.
Caught between the students, parents and the legal system are educators, who often deal with a constantly moving target when trying to make peace between religion and secularism in public schools, explained Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Legal opinions, community culture and diverse student populations can all dictate the decisions administrators and teachers make to strike a balance between coercion and free expression of religious ideas. The scene plays out dramatically at Christmas when administrators, teachers and parents are keeping an eye and ear on the decorations and music to ensure it is nondemonational, Domenech said.
"As administrators you become so sensitized to it that I find myself never saying merry Christmas," he said. "I say happy holidays because I never know who I'm addressing."
While both sides of the prayer-in-school debate square off in court, Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, has been working behind the scenes with educators, religious groups, the ACLU and other interested parties to come up with guidelines to help educators comply with judicial rulings.
Over the past 20 years Haynes has spearheaded efforts to come up with guidelines on religious liberty in schools that were adopted by the Department of Education and made part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.
He explained that the high court was correct in saying government has no business promoting religion and should be a neutral player that ensures all forms of religious expression are allowed. But it has taken a half century for the players in the church-state standoff to implement the reasoning behind Engel v. Vitale and subsequent establishment clause rulings.
The result, he said, is an emerging new model of public education where religion has an appropriate role in education. The consensus guidelines spell out how students can pray in school, how religious clubs that had never existed before can have equal access to school facilities and how teachers can incorporate religion into the curriculum.
"I would argue that we have more student religious expression than at any time in the past 100 years because for the first time we are getting the First Amendment right in education," Haynes said. "The irony of it is that the Supreme Court opened the door for religious expression" when it first addressed the issue 50 years ago.