50 years of confusion about school prayer

Fifty years after the Supreme Court case that excluded required prayers from public schools in the USA, confusion reigns around this issue. One of the easiest ways to rally some conservative Christians emotionally is to proclaim that prayer must be restored to public schools. Likewise one of the easiest ways to stir the passions of Christians who believe in the separation of Church and State is to suggest that mandatory Christian prayers ought to be restored to public schools.

As a person who lived through the days of the Supreme Court cases in 1962 and 1963, and who was directly impacted by these cases, what stirs my passion is that Christians in general have not discovered a reasonable approach to this whole matter.

The Supreme Court cases were actually three. First there was a case that originated in the state of New York about requiring a certain prayer to be recited in public schools each day. It was a relatively generic prayer intended to replace the Lord’s Prayer. Second, there was a case that originated in Pennsylvania about the required reading of the Bible in public schools each day. Third, was a case that originated in Maryland over required opening religious exercises each day in public schools.

Let’s start with the Maryland case.

I spent first grade through tenth grade in Baltimore, MD where my father was pastor of a Baptist church. In Baltimore, as in many cities and states throughout the country, each school day began with an opening exercise that involved a reading from the Bible, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and the pledge of allegiance to the American flag. This was a civil religion exercise for sure that violated the separation of Church and State. Yet, it was one that reinforced Christianity as the de facto established religion.

A prominent atheist, Madelyn Murray, filed suit to have these opening religious exercises declared illegal. Her case began as Murray v. Curlett, but was later consolidated before the Supreme Court with a case referenced below. At the time her case was ruled on by the Supreme Court in 1963, her son, Bill, was a student at Woodbourne Junior High School in Baltimore. Most of my friends at Gregory Memorial Baptist Church went to this school and knew Bill. We were all about his age. Bill would walk the halls of the school during the opening religious exercises as he was excused due to the protest of his mother.

This made the case a major subject of dialogue in our youth group. Baltimore city schools later changed the name of the school to Chinquapin Middle School. One impact was this allowed the school to be forgotten as the location of the protests by atheists. After the Supreme Court case Baltimore city schools would not even let voluntary religious activities happen in their schools, which was itself a violation and misunderstanding of the Supreme Court ruling. They were afraid of more law suits if they allowed anything.

Two years later my family moved to Abington, PA where the case originated that eliminated required Bible reading from public schools. There had been a Pennsylvania law that said that before the opening of the school day ten verses of the Old Testament should be read without comment.

Suit was brought by Edward Schempp against the School District of Abington Township asking that this law be struck down as it supported the establishment of a particular religion. His case was ultimately consolidated with the Madelyn Murray’s case, and his case prevailed.

In Abington High School there was a voluntary student-led morning prayer service in the school athletic director’s office, and I was the leader of it during my junior and senior years from 1965 through 1967. There was also a large and active Bible Club in the high school with a teacher sponsor, and I was president my senior year. It was all voluntary and occurred before or after school hours.

Then, of course, the prescribed prayer by the board of regents in New York was the third case that had been ruled on by the Supreme Court in 1962. This was the Engel versus Vitale case referred to in a recent ABP article: http://www.abpnews.com/culture/politics/item/7791-expert-ryan-wrong-about-school-prayer#.UEx5kLJlS0g.

Many people have misunderstood the three Supreme Court cases. When the Supreme Court has heard and ruled on similar cases in the years since, they have appeared to support the type of voluntary religious activities we did in Pennsylvania. I support voluntary things in schools. I oppose required specific religious practices from any religious perspective in schools.

Where do you stand on this?

Editor’s note: This blog appeared previously as an ABP Commentary

George Bullard

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About the Author
George is President of The Columbia Partnership at www.TheColumbiaPartnership.org, This is a Christian ministry organization that seeks to transform the North American Church for vital and vibrant ministry. More than a dozen consultants and coaches are related to The Columbia Partnership. It is a strategic partner with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. George is the author of three books: Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict, and FaithSoaring Churches. George is also General Secretary [executive director] of the North American Baptist Fellowship at www.NABF.info. This is one of the six regions of the Baptist World Alliance. One final role George holds is that of Senior Editor of the TCP Leadership Series books with Chalice Press at www.ChalicePress.com. More than 30 books have been published in this series during the past seven years.

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