Fact, Not Fantasy

The Real Story Of The Supreme Court's School Prayer Rulings

Religious Right groups have spent years building up a mythology about prayer in public schools. Their story goes something like this: All of the schools sponsored daily prayer, and no one complained. Then, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a noted atheist, sued to have prayer removed. The Supreme Court agreed, and now absolutely no religious activity is permitted in our schools.

None of this is true, but that hasn’t stopped Religious Right organizations from promoting this version of events. Thankfully, two new books have arrived to help set the record straight.

Challenges to school-sponsored prayer and other religious exercises occurred in some states as early as 1869. But those cases were limited to state courts and produced mixed results. The first challenge in the federal courts was 1962’s Engel v. Vitale. This was the case that ended state-sponsored, coercive prayer in American public schools, and it did not involve O’Hair; the challenge was brought by a group of parents from Long Island, N.Y.

Bruce J. Dierenfield, a professor of history at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., tells the story of this often-overlooked, but crucial, legal tussle in The Battle Over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America (University of Kansas Press, 2007).

The Engel case has its roots in a 1951 action by the New York Board of Regents. Aware of the religious diversity in the state, the Board convened a panel of Catholic priests, Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis to compose a supposedly “non-denominational” prayer. It read: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.”

As Dierenfield points out, this prayer, proclaimed by the board as acceptable to all people of “goodwill,” still promoted “sectarian notions of monotheism, supernatural creation, and divine response to petitions.”

By 1955, only about 17 percent of the state’s public school districts had adopted the prayer. Among them was the Herricks School District on Long Island, which mainly served  the town of North Hempstead. Dierenfield writes, “When the Herricks School Board adopted the regents’ prayer, it set off a chain of events that would lead to the greatest outcry against a Supreme Court decision in a century.”

Dierenfield tells the full story of the case and does an especially good job of invoking the times that spawned it. It is difficult for many people today to fathom why a government body like the Board of Regents would spend its time composing prayers. We tend to forget that in the 1950s, godliness was seen as a corrective for juvenile delinquency, the rise of gangs and the spread of communism. In other words, the prayer had less to do with honoring God than it did keeping kids on the straight and narrow.

The author’s most impressive accomplishment is that he took the time to track down and interview several of the parties who were involved in the case. Several of the students who served as plaintiffs share their reflections, and it’s obvious the case was not easy for them. The families endured considerable harassment.

In one especially disturbing incident, Steven Engel, the father who brought the case on behalf of his son, Michael, received an anonymous call at work from a person who said, “We have your children.” Engel rushed to the school, only to find Michael safe and sound. In another incident, members of a neo-Nazi faction marched into the neighborhood where the Engel family and the Roths, their co-plaintiffs, lived. Carrying a baseball bat for protection, Steven Engel confronted one belligerent. Neighbors rushed out of their houses wielding shovels and pitchforks, determined to drive out the noisy thugs. The police arrived in time to head off a bloody confrontation.

To round out the book, Dierenfield gives a brief history of religion in public education and talks about church-state cases that came before the high court prior to Engel. I have a few quibbles with this material. First, Dierenfield is awfully hard on Justice Hugo Black, whom he flatly calls “anti-Catholic.” Black’s views in this area are more complex than that slur suggests. Black, after all, voted to uphold taxpayer-provided bus subsidies for Catholic school students in Everson v. Board of Education – a curious stand for an anti-Catholic to take. In fact, Dierenfield’s entire analysis of Everson, a pivotal church-state case, is sloppy and marked by a tendency to over-generalize.

Speaking of Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor that was endorsed unanimously in Everson, Dierenfield writes that it would “come to have the same hold on the American imagination as Winston Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ reference to the Soviet Union’s relentless grip on Eastern Europe.”

Perhaps Dierenfield was just reaching for a comparison here, but this one is unfortunate, as it plays into Religious Right calumny that our church-state wall is repressive and un-American.

Dierenfield is better when he sticks to Engel. He points out that the Religious Right’s fears over the expulsion of religion from public schools are misguided. In the book’s conclusion, he notes that Americans remain the most religious people in the industrialized world, writing, “This continuing pattern of religiosity prevails because Jefferson, Madison, and other Founding Fathers devised a recipe for freedom that protects religious minorities of all kinds, even nonbelievers, and that allows religion to flourish by removing its dependence on the state.”

Amen to that.

One year after Engel, the Supreme Court decided Abington Township School District v. Schempp. In this case, the high court struck down school-sponsored devotional Bible reading. In many ways a logical companion to Engel, the Schempp case likewise has its genesis in the 1950s; the legal challenge was first brought by members of Ed and Sidney Schempp’s family, who lived in suburban Philadelphia.

Stephen D. Solomon, a law professor at New York University, gives a full account of the Schempp case in Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle Over School Prayer (University of Michigan Press, 2007).

The Ellery of the title is Ellery Schempp, a student at Abington High School, who, at age 16, spoke out against school-sponsored Bible reading. His “protest” took an interesting form: One day, as the Bible verses began wafting over the loudspeaker, Ellery began silently reading a copy of the Quran! His defiance led him to the principal’s office.

Solomon’s book is useful because it reminds us that there was nothing “voluntary” about public school worship in the late 1950s. Ellery was at first excused from the daily devotionals by Principal W. Eugene Stull, who later changed his mind and insisted that Ellery’s refusal to attend was a sign of disrespect.

Ellery’s Protest contains a wealth of details about how the legal battle unfolded. It’s interesting to note that this iconic case almost collapsed in the starting gate because the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union was reluctant to take it on. Some members of the ACLU board worried that the time was not right to challenge religion in public schools; others said the group’s main focus should be battling the Red Scare.

In the end, one man, Clark Byse, broke a tie vote and authorized the case to move forward. Byse actually did not personally support the lawsuit but felt that if half of the board thought the issue was important, the case should be filed.

Relying on court transcripts, Solomon follows the case through the courts and discusses some of the behind-the-scenes wrangling that went on at the Supreme Court. He discusses the companion case – O’Hair’s challenge to religious practices in Baltimore’s public schools – and also examines the fallout from the Schempp decision.

That fallout was considerable. Several states and local school districts were defiant, and school prayer quickly became a political football. Solomon notes, “In Washington, congressmen put in an endless stream of proposals to amend the Constitution to allow devotional exercises in the public schools. In fact, if amendment proposals were raindrops, the Capitol building would have floated down Pennsylvania Avenue in a biblical flood.”

Solomon also makes it clear that the Schempps, like the Engels and the Roths, had to endure their share of harassment. Ellery’s younger sister, Donna, reported that some friends simply stopped talking to her. Younger brother Roger was jostled in the school hallways and called a communist. Hateful letters poured in. One suggested the family move to Red China.

Stull was so angry at Ellery that he actually contacted universities the young man was considering and urged them not to admit him, calling Ellery a troublemaker. (The ploy failed miserably. Ellery attended Tufts University and went on to pursue graduate degrees.)

In his concluding chapter, Solomon discusses the recent erosion of church-state separation at the Supreme Court. His observations are troubling, but he ends on a positive note, writing, “Bound to the state, religion had long sought adherents with fire, sword, and legislative fiat. Unbound, it renewed itself through free competition based on its ability to connect with the human soul, one soul at a time.”

For Ellery, the ending is also satisfying. An Americans United supporter, Ellery has remained active in the struggle to maintain church-state separation and often gives talks about his case to local groups. He holds a doctorate in physics and has been a teacher and researcher. Now semi-retired, he lives near Boston.

A new generation of leaders eventually took over at Abington High School, and they recognized that young Ellery’s protest should be viewed as an occasion for pride. In 2002, he was inducted into the school’s hall of fame. The online entry reads, “Doctorate in Physics from Brown University; Research into Electro Magnetic Imaging (EMI), high-temperature superconducting (HTS) materials for practical applications in MRI, analyses of wind power energy, development of cryogenic power electronics systems, and novel energy storage technologies. Initiated school prayer suit against Abington which was eventually decided by U.S. Supreme Court in 1963.”

The Battle Over School Prayer and Ellery’s Protest are much-needed correctives to Religious Right propaganda that, even 45 years after the fact, will not die. Advocates of church-state separation will find much of value in both books.