50th Anniversary of Supreme Court Ruling on the Bible and Prayer

Warren-CourtLast week marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Abington School District v. Schempp, which ended mandatory Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools. In the half-century since that ruling, the myth has developed among educators and the general public that the Court threw the Bible and prayer out of public schools.

However, the Court merely prohibited mandatory Bible reading when it had no educational purpose and it prohibited state-initiated prayer. In writing for the majority opinion, Justice Clark clarified:

“…the State may not establish a "religion of secularism" in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion…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. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. 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 keeping with this, state academic standards today expect schools to teach about the role of the Bible in history, culture, and values. For example, since 1998 the California Department of Education has expected that sixth grade “students should read and discuss Biblical literature that is part of the literary heritage and ethical teachings of Western civilization; for example, stories about the Creation, Noah, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, Ruth and Naomi, David, and Daniel and the Lion’s Den.”

The academic standards for Washington, D.C. schools expect students to “explain the origins of Christianity in the Jewish Messianic prophecies, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament and the contribution of St. Paul the Apostle to the definition and spread of Christian beliefs (e.g., belief in the Trinity, Resurrection, and Salvation).” And teachers are encouraged to have “students read the Sermon on the Mount.”
On the issue of prayer in school, while the Court prohibited mandatory prayer in its 1963 ruling, it also reminded the American people:

“In Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952), we gave specific recognition to the proposition that "[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." The fact that the Founding Fathers believed devotedly that there was a God and that the unalienable rights of man were rooted in Him is clearly evidenced in their writings, from the Mayflower Compact to the Constitution itself…It can be truly said, therefore, that today, as in the beginning, our national life reflects a religious people who, in the words of Madison, are ‘earnestly praying, as . . . in duty bound, that the Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe . . . guide them into every measure which may be worthy of his [blessing. . . ].’”

A public school teacher cannot begin the school day by leading students in a prayer. But that does not mean prayer has been officially banned from schools. In fact, a moment of silence – which can be used for prayer – is REQUIRED in seventeen states and is allowed in an additional eighteen states. Thirty-five states – enrolling 35 million students – allow for, or require, students to take a moment at the beginning of each school day to reflect on their day or say a silent prayer.

States Requiring a Moment of Silence

Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia

States Allowing (but not requiring) a Moment of Silence

Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnestoa Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah

This week, as we remember the Court’s decision 50 years ago, we need to dedicate ourselves to actually using what is allowed in our schools and often required. My challenge to children’s and youth pastors is this: are you encouraging your students to use the moment of silence in your state to actually begin their days with prayer? Do you even know that your state has such a law?

My challenge to educators who think they cannot reference the Bible in their classrooms is this: are you teaching what your state’s academic standards EXPECT you to teach regarding the Bible? Do you even know that those standards exist?
The first step toward using our freedom is understanding that we are actually free to act.