School prayer: 50 years after the ban, God and faith more present than ever
School prayer was banned by the US Supreme Court 50 years ago, but there is probably more presence of religion in public school environments – through club ministries, classes, after-school and interfaith programs, and faith-based services – than ever.
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• "See You at the Pole" began in Texas with 10 Christian students praying around their school flagpole in 1990. It has blossomed into a yearly ritual involving 1 million to 2 million public school students nationwide meeting on a designated September morning before class.Skip to next paragraph
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• Informal Bible study groups have proliferated, judging from anecdotal reports, sometimes meeting on campus, sometimes at a coffee shop or someone's home.
• Over the past 10 to 15 years, Muslim and Jewish student clubs as well as clubs espousing agnostic, humanist perspectives have appeared on public school campuses. Among the oldest, the Hindu Student Association of Bellaire High School in suburban Houston attracted 700 people of many faiths at its Holi celebration in April.
• Students in interfaith groups like Youth LEAD in Sharon, Mass., may meet off-campus, but stage workshops and programs at school.
• Students are also carving out time to pray, whether Muslims fulfilling a religious obligation or Christians delivering on prayer requests during lunchtime.
• Some schools allow released-time programs: During class hours, students leave campus for Christian, Jewish, Mormon, or Islamic instruction – some even earn academic credit.
• Schools are increasingly including Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, and, in some cases, the Bible in their curricula because of concern over Americans' religious illiteracy. (A 2007 study found that only 10 percent of American teens could name the five major religions.)
Many welcome the growing presence of religion.
"If the public school is to prepare people to participate in a democracy," says Mike Waggoner, editor of Religion & Education, "students are going to require an understanding of Hindus, Muslims, atheists, various forms of Christians, and so forth."
Mr. Haynes concurs, noting, "It is on public school campuses that young people learn to live with and address differences." But, he warns, if religion is going to come on campus, it has to enter "through the First Amendment door."
This means that public schools and their staffs cannot violate the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution by fostering religious beliefs. But neither can they stifle students' constitutionally protected freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.
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Rulings that panicked school boards
So what exactly happened 50 years ago?
In two landmark decisions – Engel v. Vitale on June 25, 1962, and Abington School District v. Schempp on June 17, 1963 – the Supreme Court declared school-sponsored prayer and Bible readings unconstitutional. The rulings provoked unprecedented controversy, says Melissa Deckman, affiliated scholar with the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C. "School boards got so paranoid about dealing with religion that they just said, 'We shouldn't do any of that at all,' " she says.
Schools struck religion from curricula, teachers avoided the topic, and children got the message that religion took place off campus. But then, Professor Deckman explains, people began "to say, 'Look, religion is part of who we are and our culture.' "
Yes, the rulings restricted public school employees – but what about students? Could they say grace in the cafeteria or meet outside class to study the Bible, Quran, or Torah? Could religious organizations offer after-school programs? While teachers couldn't preach, could they address religion academically?