Fifty years ago last week, on June 25, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court declared school-sponsored prayers unconstitutional in the landmark case Engel v. Vitale.
Public outrage was immediate and widespread. For millions of Americans, the court had “kicked God out of the schools,” to use a phrase that has entered the culture-war lexicon.
Five decades later, Engel continues to be reviled by a good number of televangelists and politicians who take every opportunity to rail against the “godless public schools.” Eliminating school-sponsored prayer, they argue, set America on the road to moral and spiritual ruin.
Over the years, the absence of “school prayer” has been linked to almost every social ill, from schoolhouse shootings to drug addiction.
One popular YouTube video asks why God doesn’t do something about the terrible things happening to our students in public schools — and a deep voice replies in ominous tones, “I am not allowed in schools.”
That the high court’s prayer ruling is to blame for America’s decline makes a compelling narrative, raising millions of dollars for advocacy groups year after year.
But here’s the catch: It isn’t true.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: The moral state of the union can’t be correlated to the frequency of government prayers in schools or anywhere else. After all, in the era of daily teacher-led prayers, America had any number of social ills, including segregated public schools.
Just as it would be absurd to blame teacher-led prayer for racism or other moral failures in the 1950s, it makes no sense to blame the absence of such prayers for our moral failures today.
But the Big Lie in the school-prayer debate is the false charge that the Supreme Court expelled God or eliminated praying from public schools. In reality, the Court has never banned prayers in schools — in Engel or in any other decision.
Instead, the Court ruled that, under the establishment clause of the First Amendment, “it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.”
In other words, state-sponsored prayers in schools are unconstitutional. Students, on the other hand, are fully free to pray in public schools — alone or in groups, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.
It’s true that in the aftermath of the Engel decision, some school administrators took things too far by prohibiting constitutionally protected student religious expression. Of course, other administrators and school boards practiced civil disobedience by continuing school-sponsored religious practices in defiance of the Court’s ruling.
But in recent decades, most public school officials have begun to get religion — and prayer — right. They (finally) understand the difference between government speech promoting religion — which the establishment clause prohibits — and student religious speech, which the free-exercise and free-speech clauses protect.
Visit most public schools today, and you are likely to see students praying around the flagpole, attending religious club meetings, giving each other religious literature, saying grace before lunch, talking about their faith in class discussions and in other ways expressing their religious convictions.
In fact, there is more student religious expression in public schools today than at any time since the 19th century. Far from being “kicked out,” God goes to school today through the First Amendment door.
Critics of the Court’s ruling in Engel v. Vitale do have one thing right: The decision changed America — just not in the way they think.
Gone are the days when one faith (historically Protestant Christianity) dominated the public schools and the public square. Today, thanks in no small measure to Engel, we are closer than ever to the full religious freedom envisioned by the First Amendment — a level playing field for people of all faiths and none.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum.