Adam Laats: Will the Supreme Court Bring Prayer Back to Public Schools?

Lisa R. Parker

Historian Adam Laats warns that the Supreme Court failed to understand the wisdom behind the Founding Fathers’ efforts to separate public schools, public funding, and religion. And in their failure, they have opened controversies that will rock American society and schools for years to come.

Laats writes:

Religious conservatives have been fighting for years to get prayer back into America’s schools, and this year, the Supreme Court gave them what they wanted. In Kennedy v. Bremerton, the six conservative justices affirmed a coach’s right to offer a prayer after a football game.

But what is really astonishing is that this decision will over time prove to be less monumental than the Court’s other big religion decision this term. In Maine’s Carson v. Makin, the Court ruled 6–3 that a state could not exclude private religious schools from receiving public funding only because of their religion. In prospect, it opens up a vast new world of publicly funded religious schools—using tax money, potentially—to teach kids that dinosaurs walked with humans, that girls primarily come into this world to grow up and bear children, or that only heterosexuals deserve rights. Maine quickly passed a law to keep public money away from avowedly anti-LGBTQ schools, but legislators will only be able to play anti-discrimination whack-a-mole for so long. Carson, not Kennedy, is the decision that could reshape the relationship of Church and school in America—even though prayer in school has long been the symbolic victory conservatives were intent on winning.

The reasons that prayer in school became the hallmark fight of this movement go back to the middle and late 20th century, when the Supreme Court decided a series of cases that conservatives thought “kicked God out of the schools.” In 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not require students to recite a state-written prayer. Politicians rushed to condemn the decision. Representative Frank Becker of New York called the decision “the most tragic in the history of the United States.” Ex-President Herbert Hoover joined ex-President Dwight Eisenhower in protesting the decision, declaring it the end of the country’s public-school system.

To Americans who cared a lot about religion, however, the decision seemed like a good one. Conservative evangelical Protestants looked askance at the bland wording of the prayer—it left out any specific mention of Jesus—and they did not approve of government-written prayers in the first place. From the fundamentalist citadel of the Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago, President William Culbertson wrote, “Christians who sense the necessity for safeguarding freedom of worship in the future are always indebted to the Court for protection in this important area.”

That all changed the next year, with the Court’s decision in School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp. In Schempp, the Court ruled that some of the religious staples of American public schooling veered too far into controversial territory. It ruled against teachers leading students in prayer, and against students reading the Bible in class as part of a prayerful practice.

For America’s conservative Christians, even evangelicals who had supported the Engeldecision, that was too much. Evangelical editors ranked the Schempp decision as the most devastating, world-changing event of 1963, more important to America and to Christianity even than the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, with its murder of Christian children. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the outspoken atheist who helped bring the Schempp cases to court, was attacked relentlessly, labeled by Life as “The Most Hated Woman in America.”

Ambitious politicians scrambled to pass a constitutional amendment to bring prayer back to public schools. New York’s Becker persuaded his colleagues to unite behind a single, simple change to the Constitution. The amendment explicitly stated that the Constitution never prohibited prayer or Bible reading in public schools or other government functions. The Republican Party added a plank to its party platform in favor of the amendment. By 1965, however, the amendment drive had lost steam.

Conservatives despaired. As one conservative Christian wrote in 1965, the end of school prayer meant the end of American Christianity itself. The Schempp decision, he warned, was only the start of “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution.” From the conservative evangelical Biola University, near Los Angeles, President Samuel Sutherland concluded that the decision and the failure of a constitutional amendment signaled America’s transformation into “an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself.”

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