The History of Prayer in Schools

The History of Prayer in Schools January 9, 2012

One of the constant bits of rhetorical excess we hear from religious right politicians is the claim that the Supreme Court “took God out of public schools” by “banning prayer” and “forbidding the reading of the Bible.” None of those things are true, of course, but truth rarely has much currency among the wingnuts. Steven Green has an interesting bit of history on such matters, pointing out that by the time the Supreme Court took mandatory prayer and Bible reading out of schools, the practice was already declining around the country.

The belief that the high court’s holdings on church and state defy our history and traditions is widely held, but it lacks an appreciation of our past. Contrary to the dominant view perpetuated by conservatives but shared by many, the modern Court’s decisions on religion in the schools were built on a jurisprudential foundation that was at least 100 years in the making. Rather than creating new law with its school prayer rulings, the justices affirmed a legal transition that had begun during the 19th century.

Controversy over the role of religion in public education arose with the founding of the nation’s common schools in the early 1800s. Early on, education leaders realized that the dominant practice of doctrinal religious instruction — consistent with evangelical Protestantism — was unnecessarily divisive and contravened the conscience rights of religious minorities. Educators settled on teaching “universal” religious teachings — termed “nonsectarianism” — which they believed would be acceptable to children of all faiths. Teachers would read the Bible “without note or comment,” and then only from those less controversial passages. But despite the effort at compromise, the system failed to satisfy religious skeptics on one extreme and conservative evangelicals on the other. School prayer and Bible reading remained controversial, and with the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants in mid-century, the issue exploded onto the national stage. Ohio became the first state to ban prayer and Bible reading in 1873, to be followed by Wisconsin in 1890 and a handful more at the turn of the century. Of greater impact, many urban school districts voluntarily halted the religious practices in response to complaints by Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities. These actions reflected a growing appreciation for the nation’s expanding religious pluralism and of the government’s limited role in promoting piety.

To be sure, nonsectarian exercises remained the dominant practice in the nation’s schools for many years, but a clear trend was underway. Education was being “secularized,” to the chagrin of religious conservatives. By 1960, as the Supreme Court was entering the fray, less than 40 percent of the nation’s schools — chiefly in the South and Midwest — mandated any religious exercises. And the bulk of those involved rote Bible reading, a practice unpalatable to many religiously devout people. In striking the practices, the justices not only affirmed that government has no business dictating religious matters; they were following a tradition of respect for religious pluralism that had been evolving for many years.

I forget who it was that noted, accurately, that the Supreme Court generally likes to be the last guy in on a gang tackle. The pattern is usually that the Court waits until legislatures have already begun to repeal oppressive laws and state courts have started to overturn them, then they rush in and jump on top of the pile while yelling, “Let’s do some justice here!”

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  • MikeMa

    To shine the gang tackle light a bit more favorably on SCOTUS, a decision which addresses many accumulated lower court rulings and laws on the books might be seen to have evaluated a larger volume of case law in its decision thereby giving it more weight. Or not.

  • D. C. Sessions

    I forget who it was that noted, accurately, that the Supreme Court generally likes to be the last guy in on a gang tackle.

    Which is often a very good idea, since it allows the topic to be chewed over in lower courts and in legislatures so that the Court’s ruling doesn’t land like a bombshell.

    That’s one of my two main objections to the jurisprudence of Citizens United: the Court popped the topic out of nowhere, when the final ruling supported a theory of the case that had never been argued before it or any of the lower courts.

    My other main objection is related: rather than reversing the decision with a totally de novo theory of the case, the Court should have remanded it with instructions to consider the issues that the Justices wanted developed. Had they done so, we might have a more nuanced law that balances First Amendment issues in the same way that the law of personal speech does. Instead, they just smashed more than a century of existing law and precedent to dust.

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the Montana case. Having a State Supreme Court flip off the USSC based on a well-documented history of corruption will be, at the minimum, interesting.

  • slc1

    I can only relate to my own experience in going to elementary, junior high, and high school in California a million years ago but at no time was there teacher led prayer or bible reading. In fact, I am unable to recall any mention of religion at all, other then Christmas carols and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah being sung at assembly in December.

  • My parents went to school in Iowa in the 40’s and early 50’s. (Mom in the city and Dad in a small country school)Neither remembered any sort of prayer or religiousness outside of the annual Christmas program. Even that was fairly secular. The whole prayer in school controversy really perplexed them.

  • cheesynougats

    While the SCOTUS ruling may have been late, it was necessary. Even as late as 1980, there were school districts with mandatory Bible classes (I was in one in 3rd grade). Never found out whether the school got caught, but the next year that class quietly disappeared.

  • otrame

    Back in the early 14th century, when I was in grammar and middle school, we said the

    Lord’s prayer (protestant version, of course ) every morning. That was in South Carolina, where Matt:6-6 was accidentally left out of the bible. At the time, I didn’t even know there was a Catholic version and it never occurred to me that there might be those who didn’t want, for whatever reason, to participate.

    But the truth is I NEVER prayed in school. I said the words. Not the same thing.

  • josephmccauley

    When I left Boston and the Catholic schools, I landed in a rural public school, where Bible was read every morning during homeroom. I believe it was the teacher’s option. It seemed OK to me, since prayer in school had been a part of my upbringing. I believe I was in 5th grade when it stopped. I can’t believe my Jewish friends never complained. By that time (to my mother’s chagrin) I was well on my way to becoming a pagan.

  • I remember when I was going to Junior high school, there was a substitute teacher reading the bible while we did our work in creative writing class. He never got in trouble for it. I never got in trouble for bringing my Bible to school a few times when I was going to high school. The mentioning of Christ’s birth was only made during the Christmas holiday season and there was a time when one of my English class teachers mentioned about Christ coming to earth to save us. But that’s when we were studying Capitalization in words. One time when I was in elementary school the teacher made me stay in recess when I protested against singing a Sunday School song in school, saying that this is a school not a church and the teacher didn’t like it. I guess I was able to grasp the concept of Separation of Church and State before I became aware of such a concept years down the road. Anyway, other than that nearly every part of school lessons were entirely secular.

  • Aquaria

    They were still doing prayers in my East Texas high school in the late 70s (77-79). It was done as a “let the kids express themselves with prayer”, but it was still prayer forced on us, over the loud speakers into every classroom and hallway, every week.

    I know. I almost created a lawsuit over it, after I got thrown out of class for not bowing my head in prayer. I still think my stepfather should have sued, rather than having the school get the teacher to back off me.

    Last I heard, it was a Jewish family having kids in the school a year or two after I transferred that finally go them to knock off the prayer thing.

  • naturalcynic

    I was brought up in California in the 50’s and 60’s and there was no prayer in school. However there was Bible reading. One of the standard readings in High School English 3 was the Book of Job. No doubt that it was an atheist plot.

  • I remember one time in high school, there was a threat of mandatory bible classes, though I don’t remember the source. I made it a point that if such classes were instituted, I would skip them, figuring that an honor roll student doing so would attract attention.

  • The Christian Cynic


    The mentioning of Christ’s birth was only made during the Christmas holiday season and there was a time when one of my English class teachers mentioned about Christ coming to earth to save us. But that’s when we were studying Capitalization in words.

    It’s too bad you didn’t learn it then. (But it’s a forgivable sin, I think.)

  • longstreet63

    Well, keep in mind that the whole rhetorical attack has nothing to do with actual history and everything to do with ‘history as we pretend it was’. In that history, every school had students willingly and happily enjoying the Bible and praying together until the evil Court sent paratroopers in to make them all stop, after which gay people and atheists began to exist for the first time ever.

    Rather like forced pledging of allegiance, which is trying to make a comeback, these folks want to ‘solve’ these problems with a re-institution of something that never really quite existed.

  • briandavis

    I was in California public schools in the 70s. Religion was mentioned only in PE classes. “Faster Davis! Jesus Christ boy, is that the best you can do?”