Stanley Reed Lecture Series: School Prayer

Regina Powers, Contributor

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While attending a Stanley Reed Lecture about school prayer, students, faculty, and staff likely expected to learn about the controversies of prayer in public schools. This could easily become a vicious debate, since the issue pushes many buttons locally and nationally. Dr. Bruce Dierenfield, a distinguished professor of history at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, presented the issue in an informative, yet unexpected manner. He began with a disclaimer about his own personal religious beliefs, which he described as Christian, or Presbyterian, more specifically. This disclaimer served the purpose of explaining that even self-proclaimed Christians oppose prayer in public schools, and this dispels the myth that only atheists or non-Christians would stand against it.
Although the typical audience member would characterize Dr. Dierenfield as an opponent of school prayer, he insisted that school prayer has an important place in our public schools. He distinguished between two types of school prayer. The first type, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale, involves prayer led by teachers and other school officials. For example, a principal may lead the school in prayer over the intercom in the mornings. The second type of prayer differs in an important way. Dr. Dierenfield insisted that even after the Supreme Court ruling, students could still pray in public schools. Students can lead their own prayers or pray silently. For example, when sitting down to lunch, a student can recite grace. Students can form their own prayer groups or religious extracurricular groups. The important distinction between these two types of prayer is whether or not a student leads the prayer or a school official leads the prayer.
The lecture did not only include information about school prayer in the twentieth century and today. Dr. Dierenfield, displaying his knowledge as a historian, also provided an extensive background of the issue that reached back to the founding of America. He dispelled myths about the Founding Fathers, such as the idea that all of them adhered to organized religion or that they intended to create a government closely bound to religion. In Dr. Dierenfield’s opinion, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were the most influential founders. Neither of these men held strong religious convictions, and Thomas Jefferson insisted upon a wall of separation between church and state. The Constitution itself did not mention God, and it did not establish a state church. The Constitution did address religion in the First Amendment by prohibiting the government establishment of religion. This amendment also states that governments can pass no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. These two clauses seem at odds with one another, but the Founders intended for Americans to freely practice their religions; however, the government could not create churches or aid them. If school officials in a public school funded by the government led a school prayer, this could be viewed as an establishment of religion.
In the Supreme Court case of Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled that a New York school prayer, designed to be impartial to different religions, was a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Teachers and other faculty led students in this prayer. The prayer referred to “Almighty God,” and many Judaic organizations opposed this. The case was brought to the court by a set of families whose children attended public schools in New York. The ruling knocked down the prayer and set a precedent against prayer in public schools. The importance of the case lies in its aftermath. It remains one of the most controversial and opposed Supreme Court decisions, and it influenced the emergence and prevalence of the Christian Right political movement.
Dr. Dierenfield provided insight by explaining both the case and the long history of religion in America, which is more complex than conventional wisdom would have us believe. This historian published several books, including one describing the Engel v. Vitale court case in depth. He also specializes in African-American history and the civil rights movement, and he authored books about these as well.

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