The removal of prayer from public schools is a very controversial and misunderstood debate. This paper will address the history of the debate, common myths and misunderstandings, and the current trends.
History of the Debate:
Public schools originated in 1647 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and soon spread across New England. They began with an elementary school for every fifty families and a Latin school for every one hundred families. Their mission was to “ensure that Puritan children learn to read the Bible and receive basic information about their Calvinist religion.”1 By 1840, conflict was at a climax in New York City. The public schools had taken on a “common school” education that included a nondenominational course of religious instruction. This meant “students would recite a few basic prayers and read passages from the Protestant, King James Bible without commentary or interpretation.”2 This did not please the some 200,000 Roman Catholics within the city who had serious objections to Protestant “non-sectarianism”2.
In 1842, New York City attempted to decentralize the issue by mandating that “no sectarian religious instruction was to be offered. All public schools would now educate students in the three R’s and leave religion to the churches.”2 This action led to the creation of church-led Sunday school’s, that were to give religious instruction.
By the 1950’s, Americans began to grow concerned about the morality of their children, especially since “the common school inculcates all Christian morals; it founds its morals on the basis of religion; it welcomes the religion of the Bible.”3 School boards across the region began to investigate ways to teach moral and spiritual values within the classroom. The Educational Policies Commission, which was a joint venture of the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators, drafted guidelines for a public school “common faith” using the Golden Rule, which was claimed by Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews. New York City adopted a 22-word Regent’s Prayer as part of their Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training in the Schools.
In 1962, the United States Supreme Court was called upon to interpret the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution citing the Regent’s Prayer in violation (Engel v. Vitale). In a 6 to 1 decision (with 2 remaining neutral) the Supreme Court decided that the Regent’s Prayer, which was to be said aloud by each student in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day, was unconstitutional: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.” Mr. Justice Black delivered the opinion of the court:
The State’s use of the Regents’ prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between...