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”.)

  • pearl87

    If your motto is “faith is not a virtue” , you really aren’t qualified to discuss virtue at all. One must have faith to even know the meaning of virtue. You are a dangerous person to be teaching young minds. 

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Hello pearl87,
    Thank you for visiting Friendly Atheist.

    I would very much like to understand what you are saying. Could you please define concisely what you mean by faith, since you assert that it is a prerequisite for knowing the meaning of virtue?

    To me, faith means the persistent belief in something for which there is no credible evidence, and even in the face of credible contradictory evidence. I don’t do that, so according to my definition at least, (and perhaps yours also)  I don’t practice the mental activity called faith.

    Is honesty a virtue?
    Is compassion a virtue?
    Is fair-mindedness a virtue?
    Is respectfulness a virtue?
    Is patience a virtue?
    Is courtesy a virtue?
    Is generosity a virtue?
    Is loving kindness a virtue?

    I think that these are examples of virtues that people commonly have, and people commonly value in themselves and in each other. No one is perfect of course, but I can say without embarrassment that my daily behavior is very consistent with these and other commonly agreed-upon virtues, and that people who know me well can and do confirm that. I’m also privileged to know many people whose daily behavior even more consistently reflects such virtues.

    If I and those other people don’t have faith according to your definition, can you please explain our consistent behaviors?

    Please be assured that I will consider your responding to my questions as a great favor, and I will treat your responses respectfully, whether or not I agree with what you say.  Although we might not agree on certain things, I think that coming to better understand each other is a worthwhile endeavor.  As human beings, I think you and I have far more in common than we have differences.

    Thank you in advance,
    Richard Wade

  • Rocketmomkatie

    what kills me is that it took a small group of so called non believers to take away from us what our country was founded on…”Christinaity”…where are all of the Christians who still believe? We need to stand up for what is right,not just on Sunday morning,but all the time….we said prayers in school when I was younger and it did not brain wash me to think any differently or believe one way or the other…I believe what I read in God’s words which is the only truth, if people want to believe that they evolved from a monkey or we got here by a big “BANG” then that is your right but dont take our rights that we read about in the Bible that we were created from Adam and Eve….it’s not fair that we as Christians have backed down from what we were taught and what we believe to have a handful of people go to the House and voice their opinions on what the believe …where were we to say this is what we believe???? We have to take control back of our country on what it was started from!!!

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Hi Rocketmomkatie,
    Please think what you’re saying  through very carefully. The only reason that you are free to worship as you choose is because everyone is free to worship or not worship as they choose.  For that freedom to work, government in all its forms must stay out of religion, and religion must stay out of government. When a public school directs students to pray, or teaches religion as if it is science, that means that all taxpayers in the community are being forced to pay for having a religion promoted by the government, whether or not they practice that religion themselves. I don’t  think that you would want to be forced to pay for promoting someone else’s religion, so if you want the law to protect you, it must protect everyone.

    You are free to worship in your church, in your home, and even on the sidewalk, but nobody is free to use government money and government personnel to promote your religious beliefs onto everyone else, and nobody can force their religious beliefs onto you. 

    The founding fathers vividly remembered the horrors of Europe caused by mixing religion and government together, so they made it clear that it must not happen in the United States.  Some of them were Christians and some were deists, but they drew their principles of government from the Enlightenment rather than from Christianity. That is why the Constitution, the structure of our nation, makes no mention of God or Christianity, and it has more than one prohibition against religion intruding into government.  As I’ve said, this protects your freedom along with everyone else’s.

    If you want a school to teach your children Christianity’s explanation of the development of life on Earth, then you will have to pay a private Christian school to do that. If you want a public, taxpayer-supported school to teach your child, then he or she will learn science rather than your religion, and you’ll have to teach him or her your religious ideas at home or in church.  This would apply to a Hindu parent, or a Native American parent, or anyone who wants their child to believe their religion’s beliefs instead of non-religious based science.

    Those children will have a tough time trying to succeed in a world that depends on good, solid science more each day, but that’s the decision their parents get to make for them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erick.amthor Erick Amthor

    Part of the Communist takeover of America. Listed in their plank. See: “truthtrek.net” or “Agenda: Grinding America Down”

  • http://www.facebook.com/erick.amthor Erick Amthor

     Uneducated or fearful school employees usually go overboard on this notorious court decision.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erick.amthor Erick Amthor

     You cannot and will not change the laws, the courts or the rulings unless the majority vote the atheists out. Since this is highly unlikely at this stage, the best thing to do is educate your children and grandchildren at home or in a Bible based school. As the father of two homeschooled, Christian college educated, happily married children, I can vouch that putting God first works. Keep the boob tube off also.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erick.amthor Erick Amthor

    ” Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams
     “God who gave us life gave us liberty… I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” -Thomas Jefferson.
     “We have been assured, sir,in the Sacred writings,that ‘except the Lord build the House,they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.”- Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention 1787.
    “Of all the disposition and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…And let us with caution  indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion…reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”-George Washington  
         The state indoctrination centers, some call public schools,despite ever increasing funding have failed  become experimental laboratories on children and have produced an alarmingly hopeless crop of under-educated young people. But the saddest result of the atheist experiment is the high incidence of drug use, sexual activity and disease, suicide and loss of respect for the sanctity of human life.  See “Agenda: Grinding America Down” free online.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erick.amthor Erick Amthor

     Not to mention public school performance.

  • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

    “Vote the atheists out”? What are you smoking?

  • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

    Okay, now I know you’re delusional. “State indoctrination centers”? “Ever increasing [sic] funding”? You have abandoned reality, friend.