What was the public school prayer which originally sparked the debate?
Although some public schools at the time recited the Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6 and Luke 11, the prayer that led to the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision to ban public school-sponsored prayer was not found in the Bible nor drafted by a religious institution. It was drafted by the New York State Board of Regents. It read as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”
The school administrators in Hyde Park, New York allowed the prayer to be read or recited aloud by each classroom at the beginning of the school day along with the Pledge of Allegiance. Parents of ten students sued the school district claiming that the prayer was unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court found that a prayer, drafted by government agency for use in public school was unconstitutional. Justice Black wrote the opinion for the Court:
. . .we think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting the establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is not part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by the government. Engle v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).
The case involved only official prayer recited as part of a religious program carried on by an agency of the government. Other types of prayer in school, including silent prayer by individual students or teachers and voluntary group prayers led by students, were not found to be unconstitutional and are recognized by the Court as rights protected under the First Amendment.
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