Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"A Decision That Spits in the Face of Our History": Catholics and the Midcentury Fight over Public Prayer and Bible Reading

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"A Decision That Spits in the Face of Our History": Catholics and the Midcentury Fight over Public Prayer and Bible Reading

Article excerpt

"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country."1 Children attending school in seven public districts in Nassau County, New York, in the late 1950s began their days reciting this prayer.2 The Regents' Prayer was the state-sanctioned invocation of New York's educational system. It was a collaborative creation of Protestant ministers, Roman Catholic priests, and Jewish rabbis, and it had the endorsement of the directors of the New York School Boards Association.3 Students and teachers praying together during school hours was normal in the United States around 1960-a third of U.S. public schools sponsored formal prayer in homeroom, and more than a quarter had lunchtime grace.4 If anything, it was the carefully inclusive and "exquisitely minimalist" wording of the Regents' Prayer that set it apart.5 Thirteen states had provisions authorizing recitation of the traditional Lord's Prayer in public classrooms.6 Devotional reading of the Christian scriptures in American schools was more common. At least thirty-five states authorized or permitted Bible reading in their schools around I960.' The practice was especially prevalent in the American South, where 77 percent of public schools provided students with the opportunity to read or hear passages from the Bible.8

Amid this show of public piety, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in a way many Americans found unthinkable. The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of parents who objected to children reciting the Regents' Prayer. Ruling on the case Engel v. Vitale in 1962, the court found state organized or sanctioned prayer in schools to be "a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause."9 The following summer the court went one step further. In an eight-to-one decision in Abington v. Schempp, the court held a Pennsylvania law requiring Bible reading "without comment" in public schools unconstitutional as well.10 Even though the statute provided that "any child shall be excused from such Bible reading . . . upon the written request of his parent or guardian," the court determined that it, and policies like it, violated the religious neutrality demanded of both federal and state governments by the First Amendment. "It is no defense to urge that the religious practices here may be relatively minor encroachments," Justice Tom C. Clark (see figure 1) wrote on behalf of the majority in Schempp. "The breach of neutrality that is today a trickling stream may all too soon become a raging torrent."11

The timing of Engel and Schempp made the rulings especially unpopular. Less than a decade earlier, the U.S. Congress had added the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and Dwight D. Eisenhower had quipped of government that it "has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."12 At the height of the cold war, as Americans steeled themselves against a godless enemy in the Soviet Union, the Supreme Court's move to, as one Long Island resident put it, make God "persona non grata in [the nation's] public schools" met widespread dismay.13 The court received more negative mail in response to Engel than any decision in its history.14 Rep. Frank J. Becker (a Republican who represented Nassau County) lamented the ruling: "This is not the first tragic decision of this court, but I would say it is the most tragic in the history of the United States."15 For Southerners especially, Engel and Schempp represented a nefarious addendum to Brown v. Board of Education-an uninvited imposition of the federal government upon states' right to educate their children. Rep. George W. Andrews (D-AL) did not mince words. "They put the Negroes in the schools," he recalled bitterly, "and now they've driven God out."16 Many states simply ignored the court's rulings.1' The Southern states were especially defiant-under Governor George Wallace, the Alabama Board of Education moved to require Bible reading for the first time after Schempp }%

Religious leaders also voiced anger. …

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