Last June marked the 40th anniversary of what has become one of the most divisive constitutional issues of our time, the U.S. Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale (1962) declared that New York's state-sponsored and required prayer in its public schools was unconstitutional. Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo L. Black said, " . . . it is no part of the business of the government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government."
The History of Public Opinion on School Prayer
A search through the Gallup Brain reveals that when asked in 1962, shortly after the Court's ruling, if they knew whether religious observances -- such as prayers and Bible reading -- took place in their local public schools, nearly half of Americans, 45%, said they did not know (30% said they knew such observances took place, and 25% said they knew that they did not). Within a month of the Engel decision, three constitutional amendments to allow prayer in public schools had been proposed in hopes of negating the Supreme Court's decision. Polling data shortly after the Engel decision was handed down showed 79% of Americans approving of "religious observances in public schools."
The Court ruled a year later in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) that state- or school board-required Bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public schools also violated the Constitution. A Gallup survey conducted immediately after that ruling showed that 70% of Americans disapproved of the Court's decision.
In 1971, 8 years after Abington, a Gallup survey showed that 65% of Americans disapproved of the ruling that local governments could not compel recitation of the Lord's Prayer or reading Bible verses in public schools, while 25% approved. In 1974 and again in 1980, at least three-quarters of the American public supported amendments to the Constitution that would permit spoken prayers in public schools. However, support for legislation to "require" prayers in public schools was significantly lower, only 55% in a September 1980 poll, suggesting a shift in public opinion away from allowing the government to require religious participation when compared to the 1971 data.
In 1983, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., resubmitted a 1982 proposal to allow voluntary prayer or a "moment of silence" in public schools; 67% of the Americans favored this proposed constitutional amendment, 11% were opposed, and 22% did not have an opinion.
By 1994, the Court had made two more decisions opposing religious practices in schools. The Court refused to hear Jager v. Douglas School District (1989), thereby letting a lower court's ruling stand that pre-game invocations at high school football games were unconstitutional. In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court ruled that clergy-led prayers at public school graduations were an impermissible establishment of religion. A May 1993 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll showed that 74% of Americans believed that prayers should be part of public school graduation ceremonies. But a May 1995 Gallup/PDK poll showed only 41% in favor (and 55% opposed) to "spoken prayer in public schools if it offends a large percentage of parents."
In 2000, the Court again ruled against state-sponsored religious activities in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), which barred student-led prayers at public school functions. Support for allowing voluntary prayer in public schools and at graduation ceremonies remained around 75%, and has changed little in the last 2 years.
Since 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times against state-sponsored religious activities -- including voluntary prayer in schools. But the proposed amendments continue -- Congressman Ernest Istook, R-Okla., last year introduced an amendment to the Constitution, saying that the courts had aided "a systematic campaign to strip religious symbols, references, and heritage from the public stage."
Americans continue to show strong support for allowing prayers and other religious expressions in public schools. However, in the last few decades consensus appears to have shifted away from the view that government should be able to require such expressions. Furthermore, a majority of Americans say they would be opposed to prayer in their schools if they knew it offended a large proportion of parents.