After 50 years, confusion remains over school prayer

Someone personally familiar with two of three landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases involving prayer and Bible reading in public schools wonders why 50 years later Christians still cannot find a middle ground on the issue.

By George Bullard

Fifty years after the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools, confusion reigns around the issue. One of the easiest ways to rally some conservative Christians 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 school prayer ought to be restored.

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

There were actually three Supreme Court cases. The first case originated in the state of New York over 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. A second case 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.

I spent first grade through 10th grade in Baltimore, where my father was pastor of a Baptist church. In Maryland, as in many 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 reinforced Christianity as the de facto established religion.

A prominent atheist, Madalyn Murray, filed suit to have these opening religious exercises declared illegal. Her case began as Murray v. Curlett, but it was later consolidated before the Supreme Court with another case discussed below.

At the time the Supreme Court ruled on her case in 1963, Murray’s 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.

The case was a major subject of discussion 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 let even voluntary religious activities happen in their schools. This abridged the free exercise of religion and was a misunderstanding of the Supreme Court ruling. They were afraid of more lawsuits if they allowed any religious activity at all.

Two years later my family moved to Abington, Pa. That is where the case originated that eliminated required Bible reading from public schools. There was a Pennsylvania law that said that before the opening of the school day 10 verses of the Old Testament should be read without comment.

A suit brought by Edward Schempp against the School District of Abington Township asked that this law be struck down because it supported the establishment of a particular religion. His case was ultimately consolidated with the Murray case.

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.

The third ruling was Engel v. Vitale, lesser known than the Murray case but preceding it by a year. It determined that the state could not require students to pray a supposedly non-sectarian prayer composed by the New York Board of Regents in 1955.

Many people have misunderstood the three Supreme Court cases. When the Supreme Court has 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. Where do you stand?

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