50 Years Ago Today, the Supreme Court Declared That Prayer in Public School was Unconstitutional

At some point today, atheists everywhere ought to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a major Supreme Court decision — Engel v. Vitale — that helped get prayer out of public schools.

Back then, a school district in New York had students recite this prayer (voluntarily) at the beginning of each school day:

“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

A group of families sued, saying this amounted to government endorsement of faith. The case made it to the Supreme Court, which had to grapple with a question many couldn’t even believe was being asked:

Does the reading of a nondenominational prayer at the start of the school day violate the “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment?

The Court said “Yes it does” and the prayer was declared unconstitutional by a vote of 6-1.

That case turned out to be the basis for several other major decisions. In fact, thanks to the result in Engel, we no longer have moments of silent prayer and ministers can’t speak at your public school’s graduation. (Of course, we still have issues with the generic moment of silence and we’ve seen student-led prayers at graduations… but back then, it was more explicit promotion of prayer.)

A year later, the Court also ruled that school-sanctioned Bible readings were also unconstitutional in public schools.

Happy 50th!

(via Religion & Politics)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Lee Miller

    It’s too bad so many school systems and administrators still haven’t gotten the message.  The fact that they can’t understand something as simple and straightforward as this explains a lot of why our schools are in such a mess.  With leadership like this, who needs enemies?

  • Jasmyn

    The only place I ever receieved a Gideon bible was at school. Hmmm.
    Now that I think about it, my youngest sister is in fifth grade. That’s when my school gave them out for the first time. I wonder if they still do this.

  • TerraCognition

     They definitely still do in Canada, though it depends on whether or not the school board has a ban in place.


    The Bluewater School District in Ontario, for example, has recently banned the distribution of Gideon Bibles to students. The school board trustees, of course, received death threats and angry letters.

  • Jackie

    My son came home with a New Testament a couple of years ago, when he was in elementary school.  However, it was not handed out at school.  The Gideons were not allowed on school property, so they set themselves up one block over, on the route most kids use to & from school.  We did get a letter from the school the next day, explaining what had happened.

  • Kurtkt

    The one thing that you didn’t mentioned is that the suit was brought by religious parents including 4 Jews.

  • Scott Rhoades

    Why are we still fighting this battle? I think one reason is headlines like this. Even though this is an atheist blog,  Hemant got it wrong in the headline. Prayer in public schools is not unconstitutional. School led prayer is. It may seem like a minor point but it’s an important distinction to make and is the basis of a rallying cry for evangelicals decrying the secularism of society as somehow banning them from practicing their faith. The faithful that oppose this ruling use the same language to imply that prayer in public school is banned when in fact each individual student can pray or not pray however they like as long as it doesn’t interfere with learning within the classroom or the operation of the school. I think it’s also a distinction that we as atheists should make very clear every time we hear this decision misrepresented (even if it is done so accidentally as I’m sure it was in Hemant’s case) .

  • Jeff Dale (JD)

    The ruling outlawed *official* or *compulsory* prayer. It’s important to be clear about this, because some Christians make rhetorical hay on the false claim that kids are *not allowed* to pray in public schools.

  • Eokee

    Judging by the pitiful state of public school finances in another fifty years we will have remember what public school was cause they will not exist. Mr Mehta will have to get another job I guess.

  • http://twitter.com/ErnestValdemar Ernest Valdemar

    One historical note: Prior to the supreme court’s ruling, compulsory prayer in US public schools was relatively rare. It was mostly the older schools in New England and a handful of southern Bible Belt schools. 

    My parents certainly never had school-led prayer (1930s/40s, Iowa), and I’m sure if Friendly Atheist readers were to poll their grandparents, etc., about whether they prayed in school as children, they’d find that the overwhelming answer was “No.”

    The idea that school-led prayer was ever common or widespread in the U.S. is a myth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    As the quip goes, “As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in school.”

  • Gunstargreen

    Hopefully fifty years after the next election we won’t be celebrating the date it was reinstated.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RPPWVLMFKJ7QCHLEVQAR5GSL5M momma J

    …and our country has been “peachy” ever sense right? Yea for taking prayer out of school! (sarcasm). Has the crime rate gone down sense then? Is our country in better shape because of this decision? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

    It has, actually, (http://youthviolence.edschool.virginia.edu/violence-in-schools/national-statistics.html). Not that this makes any difference. Using public schools as a means of instilling your personal religious beliefs in other people’s children has never been shown as a means of reducing crime rates.

    Most states have moment of silence laws where schools must set aside a brief period of time each day where students can prayer silently to whichever god they like. The Equal Access Act allows students to form religious groups in school (provided that the school doesn’t discriminate), not to mention that the Free Exercise Clause of the 1st Amendment allows students to express their religion in any non-disruptive manner they like (e.g. pray out loud before school begins or at lunch, etc.; where a shirt that says “Praise Jesus”.)