The Battle Over School Prayer and Why It Matters

Despite the dominance of economic issues in the upcoming Presidential election, Republican candidates have not foresworn using religious issues to attract the support of "Values Voters." In an effort to reinvigorate his faltering campaign, Texas Governor Rick Perry ran a commercial in Iowa touting his own evangelical faith in which he highlighted two favorites among religious conservatives: gay rights and school prayer. Later in an interview with FOX television's Chris Wallace, Perry defended introducing religion into the campaign, and he promised if elected President to support a constitutional amendment to return prayer and Bible reading to the nation's schools.

Not to be outdone, former Speaker Newt Gingrich went on CBS's "Face the Nation" where he too excoriated the holdings of the U.S. Supreme Court banning school prayer and Bible reading. Gingrich asserted that the justices should be subpoenaed by Congress to answer for such decisions (and potentially be held in contempt for refusing to comply, Separation of Powers be damned).

When conservative politicians wish to raise the temperature of a campaign, they frequently fall back on that old stand-by: the public war on religion in America. A cabal of intellectual elite, secularists, and federal judges seek to purge the public square of any expressions of faith. The chief battleground for this conflict remains the public schools, and the chief foil to realizing America's Christian nationhood has been the Supreme Court's decisions banning school-organized religious exercises. For religious and political conservatives, those decisions -- beginning with a ban on religious instruction in 1948 and peaking with holdings in 1962 and 1963 prohibiting prayer and Bible reading -- represent one of the nation's great moral failings. In addition, conservatives claim, those holdings contravene the nation's traditions while they go against the will of the majority of Americans.

The belief that the high court's holdings on church and state defy our history and traditions is widely held, but it lacks an appreciation of our past. Contrary to the dominant view perpetuated by conservatives but shared by many, the modern Court's decisions on religion in the schools were built on a jurisprudential foundation that was at least 100 years in the making. Rather than creating new law with its school prayer rulings, the justices affirmed a legal transition that had begun during the 19th century.

Controversy over the role of religion in public education arose with the founding of the nation's common schools in the early 1800s. Early on, education leaders realized that the dominant practice of doctrinal religious instruction -- consistent with evangelical Protestantism -- was unnecessarily divisive and contravened the conscience rights of religious minorities. Educators settled on teaching "universal" religious teachings -- termed "nonsectarianism" -- which they believed would be acceptable to children of all faiths. Teachers would read the Bible "without note or comment," and then only from those less controversial passages. But despite the effort at compromise, the system failed to satisfy religious skeptics on one extreme and conservative evangelicals on the other. School prayer and Bible reading remained controversial, and with the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants in mid-century, the issue exploded onto the national stage. Ohio became the first state to ban prayer and Bible reading in 1873, to be followed by Wisconsin in 1890 and a handful more at the turn of the century. Of greater impact, many urban school districts voluntarily halted the religious practices in response to complaints by Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities. These actions reflected a growing appreciation for the nation's expanding religious pluralism and of the government's limited role in promoting piety.

To be sure, nonsectarian exercises remained the dominant practice in the nation's schools for many years, but a clear trend was underway. Education was being "secularized," to the chagrin of religious conservatives. By 1960, as the Supreme Court was entering the fray, less than 40 percent of the nation's schools -- chiefly in the South and Midwest -- mandated any religious exercises. And the bulk of those involved rote Bible reading, a practice unpalatable to many religiously devout people. In striking the practices, the justices not only affirmed that government has no business dictating religious matters; they were following a tradition of respect for religious pluralism that had been evolving for many years.

So Governor Perry and Professor Gingrich should check our history before they demonize the Supreme Court (by the way Rick, there are nine justices on the Court, not eight). While it makes for good political theatre, it misleads Americans about their history. It also validates a form of religious majoritarianism that is so common in other countries, but is anathema to American values and traditions.