Prayer, piety, and the Supreme Court : a study of the Supreme Court decision concerning state-sponsored prayer in the public schools



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In November, 1951, the New York State Board of Regents recommended that a twenty-two word prayer be recited in the public schools of New York State. The Regents hoped that the prayer, written by church leaders from several religious faiths, would convey the country's moral and spiritual heritage to school children and deter the spread of the communist philosophy in the United States. The prayer generated dissension and controversy as boards of education debated whether to adopt the prayer for use in local schools. Most local boards of education ignored the Regents' request that the prayer be used, while others substituted a silent period of meditation or the recitation of a patriotic anthem. By September, 1952, less than five percent of the public schools throughout New York State had adopted the suggested prayer. Eight years after the Regents had first recommended the prayer to local districts the New Hyde Park School Board, already plagued by religious factionalism within the district, resolved by majority vote to institute the prayer. Lawrence Roth, whose child attended the New Hyde Park School, objected to the school's using the prayer and asked the board to rescind the directive. When the board refused Roth and four other parents, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union, petitioned the New York State Supreme Court in Mineola, New York, to order the New Hyde Park Board of Education to cease using the prescribed prayer. Three New York State Courts sustained the use of the Regents' Prayer, but a six to one decision by the United States Supreme Court declared public school use of the prayer unconstitutional and reversed the rulings of the lower courts. Justice Hugo Black, speaking for the majority, declared that a prayer written by a governmental authority for use in a governmental institution did violate the First Amendment provision respecting an establishment of religion. Justice William O. Douglas concurred in the decision while Justic Potter Stewart dissented. Justices Felix Frankfurter and Byron White did not participate in the decision. The public received the news of the decision with a vehement outcry partly because it did not understand exactly what the High Court had said. The concurring and dissenting opinions of Justices Douglas and Stewart detracted from the legal pronouncement of the Court, and Justice Black, in the majority opinion, relegated to a footnote information that would have ameloriated public attitude toward the decision. By handing down the decision of Engel v. Vitale along with fifteen other decisions, the High Court heavily taxed the ability of the news media to report any of the decisions fairly and accurately. The news media also contributed to the public's misunderstanding of the decision. Incorrect or incomplete headlines glared at readers throughout the United States and conveyed ideas quite different from those found in the Court's majority opinion. The press further obscured the facts of the decision by emphasizing the reaction of religious and political leaders to the extent that it omitted or delayed the publication of the text of the decision or informative analysis concerning it. Newspapers evidenced much concern over the prayer decision and widely reported it throughout the United States. Few editors reacted moderately to the decision, so editorial comment remained markedly hostile or intensely supportive in each section of the nation. Those who opposed the decision denounced it as being anti-religious and pro-Communist and viciously attacked minority groups. Supporters believed that the decision strengthened the concept of separation of church and state and protected an individual's conscience from government control. In the South, rural newspapers overwhelmingly disapproved of the decision, although urban Southern papers evidenced less hostility toward it than did urban newspapers in the Midwest. In California, the decision of Engel v. Vitale did have to compete with the decision of Robinson v. California, also handed down June 25, 1962. In Robinson, the Supreme Court overturned a California state statute declaring it a crime to be addicted to narcotics. United States congressmen submitted a deluge of resolutions to amend the Constitution, and governors of the various states unanimously supported the idea. Congressional adherents of an amendment rallied behind Frank J. Becker's proposal to allow nondenominational prayer in the public schools, but Congressman Emanuel Cellar, Democratic Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, kept the resolution bottled up in committee for two years, refusing to let it come to a vote before the entire House of Representatives. When the Judiciary Committee did hold hearings on the Becker Amendment, testimony by legal experts and religious leaders regarding the dangers of altering the First Amendment insured its defeat. Senator Everett Dirksen and Congressman Chalmers Pangburn Wylie also spearheaded drives to overturn the Engel Decision by amending the Constitution. Dirksen's campaign collapsed with his death, and strong opposition from such religious organizations as the United States Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches, Jews, Southern Baptists, and Unitarians defeated Wylie's effort in November, 1971.



History, Education, United States, Church and state