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.
“The Engel plaintiffs were interested in the constitutional principle at stake and religious liberty, but they shunned the spotlight,” Dierenfield observed. “They wanted the focus to be on the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
In his prize-winning book, Dierenfield provides a wealth of detail about the case. He notes, for example, that conflict over religion in public schools had been racking Long Island schools for years. In many ways, the battle over the Regents’ Prayer was merely the tipping point.
Much of the fuss can be traced to school officials who were reluctant to acknowledge religious diversity. The New Hyde Park School District, which adjoined Herricks, had voted to post an allegedly “interdenominational” version of the Ten Commandments in schools, a move backed by a local taxpayers’ group and the American Legion.
Jewish groups protested, and soon a full-scale community conflict was under way.
In 1958, Dierenfield writes, the New Hyde school board went so far as to ban any recognition of Chanukah in the schools, even as classrooms were bedecked with Christmas decorations.
Chanukah, the board declared, “has no supercedence [sic] over countless other religious and historical events and should not be celebrated during the Christmas season.”
In nearby Herricks, Dierenfield reports, the situation was similar. In December, for example, students were compelled to sing Christmas carols. Still, an attempt to instill the Regents’ Prayer in Herricks failed twice and passed only after the composition of the board changed following an election.
Among the new members was a local attorney, William Vitale Jr., a prayer booster who would lend his name to the case.
In July of 1958, the Herricks board voted 4-1 to begin using the prayer each school day. At the same time, the board fired its attorney, Herbert Balin, who had counseled against the move.
Religious Right activists today often assert that a brief, school-sponsored prayer can ward off every social ill, from teen pregnancy and gang activity to drug abuse and low test scores. During the Cold War era, school prayer was expected to ward off the twin evils of juvenile delinquency and communism.
Dierenfield reports that a longtime principal in the district, Lester Peck, opposed the prayer but felt duty bound to abide by the board’s decision. Peck, a devoutly religious member of the Methodist Church and a veteran educator, believed the government-composed prayer had no theological value.
With no other options, however, Peck prepared a memo to district parents advising them that the prayer would be recited daily and that they could receive an opt-out for their children.
Twenty-eight families requested the opt-out, but others simply instructed their children to remain silent while the prayer was recited.
The prayer itself was brief, reading, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”
Vitale, who served as board president during the fracas, didn’t help matters with his arrogant attitude. During one raucous meeting, an angry crowd of parents filled the room and asked that the board reverse its vote in favor of the prayer.
Vitale was not sympathetic.
As Dierenfield notes, he told the crowd, “The board has voted on this. If we say it’s in, it’s in.” He dared the unhappy parents to “sue us.”
Lots of parents were interested in going to court, but some later dropped out over fears of harassment or financial retaliation. New York Civil Liberties Union attorney William J. Butler got the list down to five families, saying he felt confident each was willing to deal with the expected community backlash.
Naomi Lichtenstein remembers that the prayer made her uneasy.
“I felt like it was oppressive,” she told Church & State. “I just went into a robot mode, as I called it in those days.”
Lichtenstein had been told by her parents not to take part in the prayer. But that created its own set of problems for a 10-year-old who just wanted to fit in.
“We were instructed by our parents to just be silent during the prayer,” she recalls. “I remember doing that, but it affected the group dynamic and created tension. You could feel it. There was an undercurrent of tension.
“It wasn’t my prayer,” Lichtenstein continued. “I knew it came down from the state, which had its own big aura. And I knew you could get in trouble if you didn’t do it.”
Complaints also came from some Christian clergy. Dierenfield writes that the Rev. Charles Lee, a local Methodist minister, blasted the state-written invocation, calling it “a mockery of the idea of prayer” and “an insult to our spiritual integrity.”
Such objections didn’t faze the Herricks school board. Members refused to reconsider their decision, thrusting the matter into the courts.
Although Butler and his legal team were not successful in New York’s state courts, at the U.S. Supreme Court the decision wasn’t even close. Oral arguments were held on April 3, 1962, and the decision was handed down on June 25.
Justice Hugo Black authored the lead opinion for the 6-1 majority. (Two justices did not participate in the case. Byron White was new, and Felix Frankfurter was ailing from the effects of a stroke.)
Black, who read excerpts from the opinion from the bench, came right to the point.
“[W]e think,” he wrote, “that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government. When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”
Justice William O. Douglas penned a brief concurring opinion. Perhaps anticipating that the decision would be unpopular, Douglas took pains to explain why it should not be construed as hostile to religion.
“The First Amendment leaves the Government in a position not of hostility to religion but of neutrality,” wrote Douglas. “The philosophy is that the atheist or agnostic – the nonbeliever – is entitled to go his own way. The philosophy is that if government interferes in matters spiritual, it will be a divisive force. The First Amendment teaches that a government neutral in the field of religion better serves all religious interests.”
Only Justice Potter Stewart was not swayed. Stewart believed the prayer was merely reflective of a widespread religiosity. He also accepted the school district’s argument that the prayer was legal because no one was forced to say it.
Reaction to the decision was swift. In October of 1962, Church & State reported that 49 separate proposals had been introduced in Congress in an attempt to overturn Engel or amend the Constitution to permit official school prayer.
About a month after the ruling was handed down, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on one such proposal. Sparks erupted between U.S. Sen. Philip Hart (D-Mich.), who opposed the amendment, and A. Willis Robertson, a Virginia Democrat (and, incidentally, the father of TV preacher Pat Robertson), who supported it.
Hart opined that the Regents’ Prayer was likely to offend few but asserted that once the door was open to official worship, more divisive supplications could walk right through. Hart asked Robertson, a Baptist, if he would support recitation of the Roman Catholic “Hail Mary” in public schools.
Reportedly, Robertson paused for a moment before insisting that he would not object as long as no student was compelled to say it.
Advocates of amending the Constitution asked Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike of San Francisco to testify. Pike had a reputation as a theological liberal, which amendment boosters might have thought would grease the skids of constitutional change.
The plan backfired, however, when Pike began arguing for an amendment that would go beyond school prayer. He recommended a proposal of his own wording that would have merely barred establishment of a national church.
As Americans United quickly pointed out, a sweeping change like that would also open the door to tax funding of religious schools.
Many conservative religious leaders denounced the Engel ruling, but others in the religious community took a different view. Christian Century ran a joint statement signed by 22 clerics in support of the high court’s action.
Americans United also issued a statement. It read, “We predict that when the current wave of emotion has subsided, the Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale will loom as a landmark of religious freedom.”
The reaction of the Roman Catholic hierarchy was surprisingly hostile. Catholic students in some states were being forced to recite a Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer and read from the King James Version of the Bible, but New York Cardinal Francis Spellman saw no problem with the Regents’ Prayer. For him, and the church hierarchy generally, secularism in public education was now a greater evil for Catholic children than what were essentially Protestant forms of worship.
Spellman worked behind the scenes to help the Herricks school board line up legal firepower, and when the Supreme Court decision came down, the high-profile prelate blasted it, saying the ruling “shocked and frightened” him.
The Jesuit magazine America went beyond that, running a column many Jews interpreted as anti-Semitic. The piece implied that Jews should simply accept minority status, asserting that they must decide “what bargain they are willing to strike as one of the minorities in a pluralistic society.”
The nation’s Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, disagreed. In the face of increasingly vociferous attacks on the high court, Kennedy appealed for calm and, during a press conference, reminded people who were upset over the Engel ruling that they could always pray more at home.
Back in Herricks, all five families were dealing with the fallout from the case. All received hate mail. Although the families were diverse on religion – some were Jews but others were affiliated with Ethical Culture or Unitarianism – many of the letters that poured in were anti-Semitic. Others accused the families of being communists. Some included threats.
The Roth family had a cross burned in its driveway, and Engel once received a call at work from someone who claimed to be holding his children. (In fact, the kids were safe at school.)
On another occasion, Engel’s house was picketed by members of a neo-fascist group, some of whom marched on his lawn. When Engel ran outside to tell the protestors to get off his property, things got heated, and the police were summoned.
Harassing phone calls poured in.
Jeanne Lyons, whose mother Lenore served as a plaintiff, remembers the torrent of phone calls and hate mail – some containing crude sexual references or demands that the families move to then-communist Russia.
“I was aware of the shunning by the neighbors who would not talk to us,” Lyons told Church & State.
Lyons recalls that she and her brother tried to make the best of things.
“My mother wasn’t answering the phone much,” said Lyons, who since 1970 has lived in Canada and works as a midwife. “We would wait for the phone to ring knowing someone was getting all worked up to let us have it and answer, ‘Joe’s Pizza Parlor.’”
The children were verbally and physically assaulted in school. Some of the parents later remarked that they felt guilty over subjecting their children to this abuse. Dierenfield reports that Steven Engel told him that if he had to do it over again, he was not sure he would bring the case.
“They endured great public ridicule as godless or communist or subversive and un-American,” Dierenfield said. “That’s pretty hard to take when you believe you’re on the side of the Constitution.”
Engel was further incensed when some rabbis openly criticized him during religious services, asserting that he was stirring up trouble and rocking the boat.
For another plaintiff, Monroe Lerner, the retaliation took a different form. Lerner was a stockbroker in New York City, and some clients abandoned him after his involvement became public.
Despite the families’ difficulties, the case has had a lasting impact. Every subsequent high court decision dealing with school prayer, and many that deal with related religion-in-public-schools issues, has cited Engel. The ruling stands today as a testament to the idea that government can’t coerce anyone to take part in religious activity.
Dierenfield says that Engel laid the groundwork for a pluralistic America that was unfolding even as the case was being argued.
“We’re the most diverse nation in the world,” Dierenfield said. “You can’t stop the movement of people into a given area, even small towns. Once you begin to have this diversity, you can’t say that everyone agrees with prayer or a particular manner of praying because obviously some people don’t. This demographic reality reinforces the constitutional requirement for what Thomas Jefferson – and the high court – famously described as a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state.”
On a personal level, Lichtenstein says her parents’ involvement in the case made her a stronger person. As a child, she said, she often didn’t appreciate what they went through.
Later on, as Lichtenstein came out as a lesbian and got involved in social activism – protesting against the war in Vietnam, advocating for gay rights and for women’s rights – she realized that her strong desire for social justice had been inspired by her mom and dad.
“It gave me a lot of strength to think of what my parents had done,” she continued. “It did help me. It gave me a lot of strength and maybe even a sense of not being frightened. I was never really alone in this. That made a big difference. I was able to see how wonderful it was what my parents did, with their speaking out.”