Religion and American Public Schools

The History of Prayer in Our Public Schools

Taken from :

The controversy over officially sponsored prayer in public
schools did not begin in 1962, when the Supreme Court first
ruled that such observances violate the Establishment
Clause. It began more than one hundred years earlier, in the
1830s, when waves of Italian and Irish Catholic immigrants
came to this country and objected to compulsory readings of
the Protestant King James Bible and the recitation of
Protestant prayers in most public schools. A bitter conflict
erupted, including riots, the expulsion of Catholic children
from public schools, the burning of convents, and even some

In the 1950s, as the religious diversity of our society
increased, school prayer became a divisive issue once again.
Now Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and atheist parents
objected to Christian practices in the public schools.

Out of this conflict arose Engel v. Vitale, a 1962 case in
which the Supreme Court ruled against officially sponsored
and organized school prayer. "We think," wrote Justice Hugo
L. Black for the court, "that by using its public school
system to encourage recitation of the Regents' prayer [a
nondenominational prayer created by the government], the
State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent
with the Establishment Clause." The following year, in
School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, the Court
held that Bible readings in public schools also violate the
First Amendment.

President John F. Kennedy, the country's first Catholic
President, urged respect for the courtÕs decision in Engel:
"We have in this case a very easy remedy, and that is to
pray ourselves. And I would think that it would be a welcome
reminder to every American family that we can pray a good
deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good
deal more fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of
prayer much more important in the lives of our children."

Reprinted from ACLU Briefing Paper #3, Church and State