New York is the birthplace of Engel v. Vitale
– one of the Supreme Court's landmark separation of church and state cases involving public school systems.
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In 1961, the New York Board of Regents allowed a brief prayer to be recited in public schools at the beginning of every school day by those students who were religious. The board issued the prayer in an attempt to resolve tensions amongst local communities that were trying to establish a prayer for the surrounding schools.
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country,” seemed like a short and harmless, nondenominational option for the Board of Regents to present to students.
But the recitation soon led to a lawsuit.
A New York parent sued the Board of Regents, saying the state-issued prayer was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the prayer was a constitutional violation.
The state of New York does not have any state specific laws regarding prayer in schools, but an education code provision allows schools and students to take a period of silence that can be used for religious meditation or reflection.
In spite of controversy over the separation of religion and the New York public school system since Engel
, the church continues to have a presence in schools. Every year Brooklyn’s Education Department pays the Catholic Church approximately $27 million in rent for building used for public schools.
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“We have dozens and dozens of sites with the diocese and archdiocese, and that’s predicated on being responsible and following the tenets of the church,” School Chancellor Dennis Walcott told the Daily News in 2013.
The problem is that some of the tenets of the church interfere with a 1987 New York law that mandates HIV/AIDs lessons in public schools.
Students must leave the school buildings they attend every day and walk to a different non-church affiliated building in order to receive these HIV/AIDs lessons, according to an article in the New York Daily News.
Parents are not pleased with the church’s entwinement with New York public schools.
“I can’t see how a church is going to tell you about what to teach,” Lisa Smith, parent of a child enrolled in a Harlem public school, told the Daily News.
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