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Fifty Years Later, The Supreme Court’s Move to Ban Prayer in Schools Still Sparks Controversy

On this day in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that profoundly altered Americans’ understanding of the separation of church and state and the place of religion in society. The decision in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp declared organized prayers and biblical readings in public schools to be unconstitutional, upholding a similar ruling banning school prayer in the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale. The two decisions were controversial at the time, and deeply unpopular, particularly among Christians. Free speech advocates said the rulings limited their rights, and some religious leaders said the decisions went too far in removing religion from classrooms. Congress drafted more than 150 resolutions to overturn the rulings by amending the constitution, but none succeeded.

A lot has changed over the ensuing 50 years, but the decision still inspires strong feelings even as the reasoning behind it—maintaining a strict wall between church and state—is largely accepted. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans agree the United States should maintain a strict separation of church and state. But when asked whether the right of religious liberty is being threatened in the United States today, nearly 4-in-10 (39 percent) said yes, compared to just more than half (56 percent) who said no. Of those respondents who answered yes, 23 percent identified the removal of religion from the public sphere as the main way religious liberty is currently threatened. Another 20 percent cited government interference in religion as the top threat, while 10 percent said hostility toward Christians and religion in general is of most concern.

This view that religion and religious people are being crowded out of the public square was evident in many Americans’ own words as they articulated their reasoning for why religious liberty is under threat. One person said religious liberty is threatened because “God is being taken out of everything,” while another said the threat was “not being able to express yourself…in public.” Others mentioned the removal of religious rhetoric from graduation ceremonies and high school football games.

That a 50-year old Supreme Court decisions is still able to arouse such strong feelings is a testament to cultural significance of the issues the court had to address. Americans remain a very religious people and care deeply about the place of religion in society. The evolving religious landscape has further complicated how religious groups and people engage with broader society and each other, but these changes make it increasingly likely that the issue of religion’s role in society will remain salient.