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Prayer in School: Laws Have Changed Through Years

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By    |   Monday, 27 Oct 2014 11:41 AM

The laws governing prayer in schools have changed through the years, morphing in the 1960s into the current regulations that separate religion from education.

In 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against state-sponsored prayer in schools.

"It is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers,” wrote Justice Hugo Black in the majority decision. Although “official” prayers created by the state were a problem, voluntary prayer was allowed.

This decision followed a 1956 court case in which Ellery Schempp, then 16 years old, refused to participate in Bible reading in school. The case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court, which ruled that schools could not mandate Lord’s Prayer recitations or Bible reading.

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Subsequent cases reaffirmed the decision to separate schools and religion. In Murray v. Curlett in 1963, Justice Tom Clark wrote, “Religious freedom, it has long been recognized that government must be neutral and, while protecting all, must prefer none and disparage none."

Numerous religious organizations over the decades supported the Supreme Court’s decision to keep government-mandated prayer and Bible reading out of schools.

“During the debate over school prayer amendments in the 1960s, Southern Baptists led the opposition, arguing that imposing government-mandated prayer on youngsters infringed on parental rights,” says the website of Americans United, an organization that fights to protect the separation of school and state, adding that the church switched sides of the issue in later years.

The Southern Baptist Convention voted in 1982 to change its traditional stance against separation of church and state, and voted to support President Ronald Reagan’s amendment that would allow voluntary organized school prayer. Americans United maintains a list of faith groups that are against state-sponsored prayer in schools and school activities.

But despite those mid-1900s decisions that defined the current structure and debate around prayer in schools, many have argued in public forums that for about 200 years the United States regularly incorporated Christianity and biblical teachings into schools.

In Colonial America, children were taught to read using the Bible, and primers from the 1690s used Bible verses and moral teachings. Even in the 1900s, most school textbooks referred to the Bible and Christianity.

Even though the Bible was widely used in those early days, trouble over how religion should be presented in schools showed up in the 1800s, Americans United noted. The King James version of the Bible was commonly used, and Catholic families began to challenge such religious pratices.

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“In some parts of the country, tension over religion in public schools erupted into actual violence. In Philadelphia, for example, full-scale riots and bloodshed resulted in 1844 over which version of the Bible should be used in classroom devotions,” Americans United said. “Several Catholic churches and a convent were burned; many people died. In Cincinnati, a ‘Bible War’ divided the city in 1868 after the school board discontinued mandatory Bible instruction.”

The issue is by no means decided today. Prayer in schools remains a controversial issue, and it has been challenged on numerous points in courts. For example, cases have addressed whether athletic games are considered school-sponsored events and cannot be opened with prayer, as well as whether graduation exercises could be opened by a rabbi with an invocation and closed with a benediction (Lee v. Weisman, 1992), The Center for First Amendment Studies reported.

Some school districts continue to challenge the Supreme Court rulings, and The Center for First Amendment Studies pointed out that taking those districts to court can be expensive and prohibitive. For instance, Pontotoc County, Mississippi, had opened its school day with a prayer for 80 years or more, and also read daily devotionals over the schools’ intercoms. But in the 1990s, a mother of six children challenged that practice and won. Despite a court ruling, the school district continued holding mandated prayers 10 minutes before the school day started.

“This case illustrates two legal problems. First, as was the case with in Wallace v. Jaffree, the history and traditions involved can lead to attempts at circumvention if not outright ignoring of the ruling of the court,” The Center for First Amendment Studies wrote. “Secondly, in order to challenge school policies or state laws that are in violation of the First Amendment parents with standing in the case must bring a lawsuit. Furthermore, the process of filing and winning a lawsuit can involve numerous appeals, all of which require a great deal of time and money. When the mother in this lawsuit filed another lawsuit to recoup her legal expenses she faced backlash from the community who accused her of trying to bankrupt the school district.”

Today, lawsuits regarding the separation of church and state continue to be filed, even though the majority of Americans support prayer in schools, according to a Gallup poll published in September 2014.

Sixty-one percent of Americans were in favor of daily school prayer in 2014, down from 66 percent in 2001 and 68 percent in 2000.

“Three-quarters of Americans (75%) support allowing students to say prayers at school graduation ceremonies, down slightly from 83% in 1999,” Gallup said. “The 77% of Americans who support making public school facilities available after hours for student religious groups to use is essentially unchanged from 78% in 1999.”

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The laws governing prayer in schools have changed through the years, morphing in the 1960s into the current regulations that separate religion from education.
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2014-41-27
Monday, 27 Oct 2014 11:41 AM
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