Golden Anniversary: The Supreme Court’s Engel Decision Protected Religious Liberty In Public Schools

The Supreme Court did not rule in 1962, and has never ruled subsequently, that kids can’t pray in public schools.

An important anniversary will be observed on Monday, one that will probably be overlooked but shouldn’t be.

On June 25, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a crucial church-state ruling in Engel v. Vitale. Although the high court had dealt with other religion-in-public-school controversies, Engel was the first case to deal with official school prayer.

I recently had occasion to do some research about the Engel case while writing about the anniversary for Church & State. I talked with Bruce J. Dierenfield, a history professor at Canisius College in Buffalo and author of the 2007 book The Battle Over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America.

Dierenfield put me in touch with two women – Naomi Lichtenstein and Jeanne Lyons – whose parents were plaintiffs in the lawsuit. It was fascinating to talk with them and hear their recollections of this important case.

A couple of things struck me. One, how nasty and mean-spirited some people can be. The five families involved in this case were all threatened and harassed. This sort of thing continues today. Consider the case of Jessica Ahlquist, who challenged a prayer banner hanging in a Rhode Island public school. I shudder when I read about what she went through.

Two, how useless the prayer in question was. The invocation that was struck down in Engel had been drafted by the New York State Board of Regents. (Imagine that – a prayer written by government officials!) It was pabulum. In fact, during the controversy many religious people pointed that out.

The Engel ruling has been abused, assailed and lied about for half a century now. It’s still going on. So let’s set the record straight about a few things.

First, the Supreme Court did not rule in Engel, and has never ruled subsequently, that kids can’t pray in public schools. The court declared that government officials have no business writing prayers and compelling youngsters to say them. Students are free to pray on their own, in a non-disruptive manner, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of others.

Second, the high court’s ruling did not demonstrate “hostility” toward religion. The decision protected religious freedom by upholding the individual right of conscience. It also protected parental rights. Parents, not government bureaucrats, get to decide what prayer, if any, children say.

Third, the loss of official school prayer actually helped religion. As mentioned earlier, theologically speaking the prayer was thin gruel. Allowing people to make their own decisions about when, how or whether to pray helps religion. Don’t believe me? Just look at Western Europe and Scandinavia, where hundreds of years of official worship and state-imposed faith has left religion in tatters.

In public secondary schools all over America, students have the right to form religious clubs that are not officially school sponsored. These clubs are run by students, and no one has to be there. That’s where you’ll find real religion in public schools because when it comes to worship, Bible reading and prayer, coercion just doesn’t cut it. The voluntary principle isn’t just best, it’s essential.

The Engel ruling laid down a powerful precedent that still reverberates today. One year later, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Abington Township School District v. Schempp. Subsequent decisions struck down creationism in science classes, school-sponsored prayers during graduation ceremonies and coercive prayer before school events like football games.

Engle, in fact, established the framework for secular public schools that welcome students of all faiths as well as those who have no religion. These schools can teach about religion in an objective manner, but they’re out of the business of religious indoctrination. Thanks to Engel, our schools must stay focused on teaching, not preaching.

That’s quite a legacy – and it all started with five brave families on Long Island. Unfortunately, all of the parent plaintiffs in the Engel case are dead now, but on Monday, take a minute to reflect on what they bequeathed us. It’s considerable.