Supreme Court’s 1963 school-prayer decision didn’t ban school prayer

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Forty years may have passed, but most Americans (of a certain age) recall the day when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down one of the most vilified, controversial and widely misunderstood decisions in American history.

Abington Township School District v. Schempp — decided on June 17, 1963 — was the second so-called “school prayer” decision (the first came a year earlier in Engel v. Vitale). But it was the most far-reaching — prohibiting school officials from organizing or leading prayers and devotional Bible reading in public schools.

Since few Americans actually read the decision, a succession of opportunistic politicians and religious leaders have spent the last four decades stirring up popular opinion against the Supreme Court for “kicking God out of the schools.”

But that’s not what the Court said — or intended. We’ve spent 40 years shouting past one another using bumper-sticker slogans that have little to do with the core constitutional issues addressed in Schempp.

Let’s use this anniversary to set the record straight. No Supreme Court ruling has ever banned prayer or the Bible from public schools. As legal guidelines issued in both the Clinton and Bush administrations make clear, students have a First Amendment right to pray alone or in groups, bring their scriptures to school, share their beliefs with classmates, form religious clubs in secondary schools and in other ways express their faith during the school day — as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

True, the Schempp decision requires that teachers and administrators neither promote nor denigrate religion — a commitment to state neutrality that protects the religious freedom of students of all faiths and no faith. But by “neutrality” the Court does not mean ignoring religion. If students are to be properly educated, teaching about religion has a place in the public school curriculum. As Justice Tom Clark explained in Schempp:

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization … . Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

In the wake of the Engel and Schempp decisions, Americans were so preoccupied with fighting over “prayer in schools” that most people ignored what the Court was trying to say about the proper role for religion in public schools.

The so-called school-prayer debate misses the real issue in education. After all, what has the most lasting impact on students? A 60-second devotional exercise imposed by the state each morning, or the content of the curriculum taught every day for 12 years?

Forty years after Schempp the shouting match over “school prayer” still grabs the headlines. But fortunately many public schools are finally going beyond this conflict — beyond the false choice of either imposing religion or ignoring it entirely.

Over the past decade, a new consensus has emerged among many educational and religious groups about the importance of including study about religion in the public school curriculum. This agreement has translated into better treatment of religion in textbooks, more encouragement to teach about religion in recent social studies standards and a growing number of educational opportunities for teachers in the study of religion.

Nevertheless, if public schools are going to take study of religion seriously, they have a long way to go. Textbooks “mention” religion more — but fail to treat religion with much depth. Standards include religion — but are flawed and uneven in how the major faiths are discussed. Most teachers are willing to include more study of religion — but schools of education rarely prepare teachers to do so.

A workshop last month for Utah teachers illustrates both the opportunity of the new consensus on the need to teach more about religion and the challenge of getting it done in the classroom.

A wide range of speakers — representing Roman Catholic, Humanist, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon and other perspectives — all agreed on the need to tackle teaching about religion in the public schools (as long as it’s done well). But during the break, a teacher took me aside to complain about lack of support in her district. “We have a clear policy on the need to teach about religion,” she said, “but my principal warns me to stay away from the subject because it’s too controversial.”

Can we move beyond this controversy and at long last find the proper role for religion in our public schools? Yes. But it will take work — and it won’t be easy.

It may be 40-year old advice, but the Supreme Court’s decision in Schempp — properly understood and applied — still charts the right course for the future of public education: Protect the religious-liberty rights of all students and ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion as an important part of a good education.

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