50 Years Ago Today: Supreme Court Stops School-Sponsored Religious Activities

Fifty years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional. Prior to that decision, it was relatively common for children to begin the school day with a reading of Bible verses, though eleven states already had laws supporting Bible reading or prayer in schools overturned at the state level.

Abington School District v. Schempp resulted in an 8-1 decision that overturned a Pennsylvania law that required the reading of “[a]t least ten verses from the Holy Bible” and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the opening of each school day.

In the majority opinion, Justice Thomas Clark wrote, “The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard.”

Justice Potter Stewart was the lone dissenting voice, arguing that religion and government must interact in countless ways pointing to an inherent conflict between Constitutional provisions that both prohibit laws “respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“A single obvious example should suffice to make the point. Spending federal funds to employ chaplains for the armed forces might be said to violate the Establishment Clause,” Stewart wrote. “Yet a lonely soldier stationed at some faraway outpost could surely complain that a government which did not provide him the opportunity for pastoral guidance was affirmatively prohibiting the free exercise of his religion.”

To Stewart, religious exercises in public school “become constitutionally invalid only if their administration places the sanction of secular authority behind one or more particular religious or irreligious beliefs.” He wanted to send the case back to the lower courts for further hearings.

The American people remain divided on the issue to this day. In a 2011 poll from Rasmussen Reports, 65 percent of American adults support prayer in public schools.

Congressman Nick Rahall (D-W. Va.) introduced a Constitutional amendment earlier this year to protect voluntary prayer in school.


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