Naomi Lichtenstein grew up in a close-knit neighborhood on Long Island, N.Y. She describes it as the kind of place where people didn't lock their doors at night, and children moved freely from house to house, visiting and playing with friends.
This idyllic suburban existence abruptly changed in the late 1950s when Lichtenstein found herself unwelcome at some friends' homes.
"Suddenly we were being treated differently," Lichtenstein recalled recently. "Suddenly we were being called 'commies.' To be honest, I didn't even know what that meant. I had to ask my mom."
What changed? Lichtenstein's parents had joined four other families in filing a lawsuit challenging school-sponsored prayer. That didn't sit too well with some people in the town of Herricks.
The legal overture focused on the so-called "Regents' Prayer," a supposedly non-sectarian devotional that had been approved for use in public schools by the New York Board of Regents in 1955. Adopted as part of a "Statement on Moral and Spiritual Training in the Schools," the prayer, board members asserted, would combat juvenile delinquency and even counter the spread of communism.
But not everyone thought that daily recitation of a prayer written by bureaucrats was a good idea. When the Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9 in Herricks voted to adopt the prayer, some parents protested.
But they did more than complain. Backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, five of them - Steven Engel, Daniel Lichtenstein, Monroe Lerner, Lenore Lyons and Lawrence Roth - filed suit on behalf of their children. New York's highest court upheld the school's use of the prayer, and the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, in a landmark 6-1 ruling, the justices struck down the official school prayer in a ruling, Engel v. Vitale, that continues to resonate today.
What made Engel significant is that it marked the first time the highest court in the land weighed in on the issue of coercive, state-directed school prayer. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the ruling, which came down firmly on the side of church-state separation. The decision also sparked a contentious "culture war" that is still raging five decades later.
The legacy of Engel is felt in the ongoing drives to add a school prayer amendment to the Constitution or in the constant legislative and courtroom squabbles over issues like creationism, "teaching about" the Bible in public schools, distribution of religious literature in schools and related issues. By mandating that public schools remain neutral on matters of religion in the Engel decision, the Supreme Court opened a new front in the culture war.
Remarkably, the ruling that started all of this tends to get overlooked. Most people associate the school prayer issue with Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a noted atheist who filed litigation against recitation of the Lord's Prayer in Baltimore's public schools.
But O'Hair's case reached the Supreme Court a year after the Engel ruling. She went on to launch a national atheist movement and become a public figure. By contrast, those who brought the New York case were happy to fade into the background once the litigation was over.
The families involved in Engel are largely forgotten today. The parent plaintiffs are all dead. Steven Engel, the lead plaintiff in the case on behalf of his children, died in January of 2008 at age 85. He had remained active in civil liberties issues all of his life.
Despite Engel's devotion to the cause, the story of the case remains largely unknown to most Americans. In 2007, the University Press of Kansas published a full-length study of the legal fight titled The Battle Over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America by Bruce J. Dierenfield, a professor of history at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.
In an interview with Church & State, Dierenfield explained why Engel often gets overlooked. …