Many misconceptions abound about the issue of prayer in schools, and some people persist in believing a lot of myths. One of the most common is that children all over America prayed in public schools until 1962 when the U.S. Supreme Court made them stop.
The issue arose recently because Rafael Cruz, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s father, told the Austin American-Statesman, “Prior to 1962, everybody prayed before school started. In 1962, the Supreme Court banned prayer. In 1963, they banned the Bible from school. Prior to that, the Bible was the principal textbook in all schools.”
The Tampa Bay Times’ Pundit Fact looked into this assertion and debunked it. They did a good job, but I’d like to flesh out their answer a little bit.
First some background: It’s important to realize that the idea of public education for the masses didn’t exist until after the Civil War. That’s when states began passing laws to create public schools and require attendance. Even then, the idea was slow to take off. Well into the 20th century, many states had lax laws in this area.
Most states had compulsory attendance laws on the books by 1920. But it still wasn’t uncommon for youngsters (especially in rural areas) to attend school sporadically, and drop-out rates were astronomical.
The role of religion in public schools was controversial from the start. Yes, some public schools did mandate prayer and Bible reading every day. Often these practices were done from a Protestant perspective. This annoyed Roman Catholics (and others) and led to violent conflict in some states, such as the Philadelphia “Bible Riots” of 1844.
In other states, the issue led to litigation. The Ohio Supreme Court struck down mandatory prayer and Bible reading in public schools in 1869. The Wisconsin Supreme Court did the same in 1890, and Nebraska’s high court followed suit in 1903; so did the Illinois Supreme Court in 1910.
In 1960, Americans United surveyed all 50 states to determine what was going on concerning Bible reading in schools. The group found that only five states mandated that the Bible be read every day. Twenty-five other states allowed it on the basis of local option. Courts in 11 states had declared the practice unconstitutional. (The other states lacked formal policies.)
Here’s the bottom line: The idea that every kid everywhere was reading the Bible and taking part in mandatory prayer in public school and was abruptly made to stop in 1962 and ’63 when the Supreme Court handed down the school prayer rulings is clearly wrong. The practices weren’t nearly as common as people like Rafael Cruz believe.
Nor were these activities non-controversial. As we have seen, they sparked a riot on one occasion and litigation in several others. Cruz’s unstated assertion seems to be that things were going along peacefully because everyone wanted to pray and read the Bible – but the high court made them stop. This is nonsense.
There are two other problems with Cruz’s assertion. Number one, the Supreme Court did not “ban” the Bible from public schools. The Bible, and other religious texts, can be studied as part of an objective class about religion (such as a World Religions course). Its influence on literature and art can also be discussed.
Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, who authored the lead opinion in the 1963 case Abington Township School District v. Schempp, made this quite clear. He wrote, “[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. But the exercises here do not fall into those categories. They are religious exercises, required by the States in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion.”
Secondly, Cruz’s claim that the Bible was the “principal textbook” in public schools prior to 1962 is obviously untrue, as anyone who attended a public institution before then can testify. It’s true that the Bible was sometimes used as a reading text in schools in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but as public schools took hold in the country, a textbook industry rose up to provide secular educational materials. (Imagine trying to use the Bible to teach American history, science or math, since it fails to get pi right.)
Rafael Cruz, who is a far-right evangelical preacher, is like a lot of fundamentalists who peddle false history. In his telling of things, everything was just fine with prayer/Bible reading in public schools until that mean old Supreme Court intervened.
Anyone who takes some time to do something Cruz could not be bothered to do – a little bit of research – knows why that’s not true.