June 17 marks the 50th anniversary of an important Supreme Court ruling called Abington Township School District v. Schempp. In this decision, the high court struck down mandatory, coercive and school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in America ’s public schools.
Even after five decades, this ruling remains the subject of many myths. Here, courtesy of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, are the facts about this decision:
Myth: The Supreme Court has banned all forms of religious activity in public schools.
Truth: The Supreme Court struck down only government-mandated prayer and Bible reading in public schools. In many states, participation in these religious activities was for all practical purposes compulsory. Truly voluntary devotions by students have always been legal. Many secondary public schools also have student-run religious clubs that meet during non-instructional time. This arrangement is legal because these clubs are voluntary, and no one is compelled to take part.
Myth: Only atheists oppose school prayer.
Truth: Many devout Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc., oppose school-sponsored prayer because it violates freedom of conscience. During the debate over school prayer amendments in the 1960s, Southern Baptists led the opposition, arguing that imposing government-mandated prayer on youngsters infringed on parental rights. (Southern Baptists switched sides on the issue institutionally only after fundamentalists took control of the denomination. Many individual Baptists still oppose official school prayer.)
Myth: Public schools can’t teach about religion even in an objective manner.
Truth: The school prayer rulings did not affect objective instruction about religion. In fact, the Supreme Court made it clear in the Schempp ruling that even-handed academic instruction about religion in classes dealing with history, art, literature, etc. is perfectly legal. Justice Tom Clark, who wrote the opinion, went out of his way to make this clear.
Myth: No one objected to school prayer prior to the 1960s.
Truth: School-sponsored religious exercises have been controversial as long as there have been public schools. In the mid-19th century, Roman Catholics spoke out against the Protestant character of prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Lawsuits were filed in many state courts. In one notable case, the Ohio Supreme Court in 1870 ruled that public education officials in Cincinnati had the right to remove devotional Bible reading from public schools.
Myth: Most public schools sponsored prayer until the Supreme Court struck it down.
Truth: Many states had no laws on the subject of prayer and Bible reading in public schools. In some states, courts had ruled mandatory prayer and Bible reading unconstitutional. Although official prayer and Bible reading were common in many Eastern and Southern states, these practices were less common in Midwestern and Western states.
Myth: A generic prayer could be composed that most people would find acceptable.
Truth: The state of New York tried this in the late 1950s. The so-called “Regent’s Prayer” was drafted by bureaucrats and offended many believers and non-believers. Since then, religious diversity in America has expanded even more. There is no way a generic prayer could be composed that would satisfy Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. Such a prayer would also offend atheists, humanists and other non-believers.
Myth: Americans support prayer in schools.
Truth: Polls show support for the right of children to pray in school voluntarily – the situation that exists now. When polls go more in depth and ask people if they support coercive or mandatory forms of religious worship in public schools, support drops sharply. Parents realize that the prayer said might conflict with their beliefs and usurp parental rights.
The Supreme Court made the right call 50 years ago. Prayer and religious worship must be voluntarily chosen to be meaningful. No government-sponsored institution should have the right to compel children to pray or read religious texts. (Christians should ask themselves how they would feel if their children were forced to recite non-Christian prayers in school.) Far from infringing on freedom, the Schempp decision actively protects it. On June 17, we should celebrate this important ruling and the values it represents.