Does God Belong in Public Schools?

By Kent Greenawalt | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Devotional Practices: Prayer and
Bible Reading

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon
Thee, and we beg Thy blessing upon us, our parents, our
teachers and our Country.

IN 1951, New York's State Board of Regents, with broad supervisory powers over the public schools, composed this nondenominational prayer that it recommended classes recite each day.1 After a group of parents in New Hyde Park objected to students' saying the prayer, New York courts sustained the prayer, assuming that participation in it was voluntary. In Pennsylvania and the city of Baltimore, laws required that the school day begin with a reading of the Bible, without comment.2 A Unitarian father in Pennsylvania objected to the state's practice of Bible reading, and the famous atheist Madalyn Murray (O'Hair) complained about Baltimore's. The Supreme Court resolved these cases in 1963, a year after its ruling on the New York prayer.

In both instances, the Court held that the practices violated the Establishment Clause. Although the margins were a comfortable six to one3 and eight to one, these rulings have proved enduringly controversial. Many school districts maintained class prayer and Bible reading well after the decisions, and it was said more than thirty years later that “flagrant disregard of the law banning school prayer [continues] in many parts of the country. In the deep south, daily prayer and Bible reading in schools are commonplace.”4 A number of constitutional amendments have been proposed in Congress to alter the outcomes.5

We begin our discussion of particular legal and educational issues with prayer and Bible reading for a number of reasons. These were the key devotional practices in nineteenth-century schools. The Supreme Court's invalidation of them marks a significant shift in what is regarded as constitutionally acceptable involvement of public schools in religious activities. Further,

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