Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a pivotal decision dealing with religious liberty, public schools and parental rights.
In Engel v. Vitale, the high court held that government officials had no right to compose prayers and pressure children to recite them in public schools. It was the first time a federal court had ruled directly on the issue of school prayer.
In this June 25 ruling, the Supreme Court did not “kick prayer out of schools,” as some complain. Students retain the right to pray on their own if they choose. The high court simply stopped school officials from coercing students to take part in religious exercises against their will.
Nor was official worship in public schools as widespread as some believe. A 1960 survey by Americans United found that only five states had laws on the books mandating daily Bible reading. Another 25 had laws allowing “optional” scripture readings. Courts in 11 states had struck the practice down as unconstitutional.
In New York, where the Engel lawsuit was initiated, government bureaucrats had taken it upon themselves to draft an official school prayer for recitation in class. It was allegedly “non-sectarian.” In reality, it was theological pablum, and many clergy recognized it as such.
Our nation lost nothing of value when that prayer was struck down. And we gained something really meaningful: Parental rights were respected. Parents – not school teachers or administrators – are the rightful agents to determine what religion (if any) their own children are exposed to.
Officials in New York tried to interfere in that relationship. The Engel ruling put a stop to that.
The parents who challenged the official school prayers – Steven Engel, Daniel Lichtenstein, Monroe Lerner, Lenore Lyons and Lawrence Roth – did so at considerable personal risk. They endured abuse, threats and harassment and were called communists.
In fact, they were simply a band of patriotic Americans who understood that anything that smacked of official religion had no place in America.
The wisdom of these parents has been vindicated. The Supreme Court has repeatedly cited the Engel ruling in religion-in-school cases that have come down since 1962. Several attempts by Congress to nullify the ruling with a school prayer amendment have been rejected.
America is a much more diverse place today than it was in 1962. That transition hasn’t always been easy, but keeping our public schools focused on teaching, not preaching, has helped smooth things over.
On the 50th anniversary of the Engel ruling, we salute all those involved, including the attorneys who successfully argued the case and especially the brave parents and their children who had the vision to see it through.