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Was school prayer widespread before 1962?

The religious right has a stake in making people think that the Supreme Court rulings of the 1960s destroyed a common and widely accepted practice of school prayer. In fact, laws requiring school prayer and Bible reading were not nearly as widespread as prayer advocates claim, were late-comers to the public education, were frequently and successfully challenged in court, and were on their way out when the Supreme Court handed down it's rulings in Engle v. Vitale and Abington Township School District v. Schempp.

To begin with, research suggests that mandatory prayer and Bible reading were not historically required n the public schools. Robert Boston, for example, summarizes the research of Boardman W. Katham, a United Church of Christ Minister who has researched public education extensively, as follows:

As public schools evolved in the post-Revolutionary War period, there was a general attitude of indifference toward religion among the American public. While the Bible was often used in schools as a reader and speller, formal daily prayers and devotional readings were held sporadically, often only when a local clergyman visited a school (Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church and State, p. 102).

Rather, the move to require prayer and Bible reading in the public schools didn't gain steam until the Civil War era, and even then didn't generally manifest itself in law until early 1900s:

(P)rior to 1900, only Massachusetts has a law on the books dealing with prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Between 1910 and 1930, seventeen states and the District of Columbia passed similar laws. The movement to get these ordinances on the books was spearheaded by a powerful lobby of conservative church groups, led by the National Reform Association.

Critically, these practices were soon challenged in Court as violating the freedom of religion provisions of various state Constitutions. In 1910, for example, an Illinois Supreme Court struck down religious exercises in its public schools. Wisconsin ruled such exercises unconstitutional in 1890 and Nebraska did the same in 1903 (Boston, pp. 100-101). In total, the issue of religious practices in public schools came up in 22 state courts before 1962, with those practices being struck down in eight cases and upheld in 14.

Nor was Bible reading all that widespread. According to Boston (p. 101), Americans United for Separation of Church and State took a survey of Bible reading in the public schools in 1960, only three years before the Supreme Court's Bible reading decision (Abington Township School District v. Schempp). According to the survey, only five states required Bible reading in the public schools, while twenty five states allowed such practices. Eleven states had declared the practice unconstitutional, and the remainder had no relevant laws on the books.

The fact is that school prayer and Bible reading was only infrequently required by law, and had been declared illegal by a number of states before 1962. The school prayer and Bible reading decisions of the Supreme Court were neither unprecedented, nor out of step with a growing body of laws and court cases that saw these practices as an infringement of our religious liberty.

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