Is it illegal to pray in schools?

In 1955, the Board of Regents for New York issued an optional prayer to be used in public schools. It became known as the “Regent’s Prayer”. Here it is: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.” That short prayer was contested not only by non-religious people but also by Protestants who thought that it was too vague. What God is it talking about? Where is the mention of Jesus or the Holy Spirit, salvation, sin, grace, etc.?

The ACLU’s fight against school prayer

With help from the ACLU, parents sued and the case made it all the way to the US Supreme Court. It was known as Engle v. Vitale. It overturned prescribed prayer in schools. In this episode, Chris goes through the arguments the court and Justice Hugo Black made during this landmark decision. A year later, the Court heard Abington School District v. Schempp, which ended prescribed Bible reading in public schools.

Is it illegal to pray in schools? Children can still pray in schools. The difference is that the school cannot require compulsory prayer.

This season we’re covering how American evangelicals bonded themselves with the Republican Party. There are a lot of reasons that evangelicals started to vote as a block in the late 70s and early 1980s. They range from women’s liberation, changes in attitude toward taxation, and battles over gay and lesbian rights, to education. This is part of our coverage of the education section. This episode has been rewritten and recorded, updating an episode from season 3.


Discussion Questions:

  • Did you ever pray in school? What did you pray?
  • Did you ever read the Bible in school?
  • Is there an “ideal” prayer that should be read in schools? If so, what is it? What objections might parents have?
  • Is it important for school children to learn about religions in school?
  • Do you agree or disagree with Justice Hugo Black?

Transcript (Note: This is from the original version of this episode. I’m posting it here for SEO reasons, but did not have time to update it)

This episode is part of a long series about how communism in Russia impacted the American Christian Church. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done, go back and start at the beginning of season three.

Thomas Cramner was burned alive.

I’ll spare you the details. This is a family show after all. But he was. After having watched two of his friends meet the same fate, he was executed for treason.

Cramner is an important figure you’ve probably never heard of. He died in 15561. This hasn’t made the news in a while. But his influence is felt even today.

His was a particularly tough time for the Christian Church. Martin Luther had only recently nailed up his thesis. The Protestant Reformation was in full swing. That period was marked with Bible study…

BIBLE: Jesus said, “come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest.”

Direct access to God without saints mediating…

PRAYER: Thank you, Father, for this meal we are about to receive…

And the end of indulgences, which were essentially ways to buy into heaven for yourself or on behalf of other people.

MONEY: Get my grandmother out of purgatory, my uncle a special blessing, and what do you have in eternal salvation?

What’s more, people were murdered for their beliefs. Like Thomas Cramner. Cramner was a reformer, meaning he was not on the side of the Catholic Church. When King Henry the 8th of England wanted to divorce his wife, Cramner helped assemble the case that he could. Essentially, this action created the Church of England. A church that was sponsored and controlled by a government.

Which, you know, may not sound so bad. The Church gets financial support, maybe a little access to power… but… if the state wants to, say, encourage you to back an evil king… one who keeps executing his wives… it gets sticky really really quickly.

Like I said, this was a turbulent time in the Christian Church, especially in England where the kings and queens see-sawed between Catholic and Protestant. Protestants rise to power, Catholics get dead. Catholics rise in power, Protestants… well, you know. Depending on the beliefs of who was in charge, your religion was either favored or murdered. Based on the whims of whoever was in charge.

Cramner lived in this see-saw world. Not only did he get the king the divorce he wanted, which eventually earned him the title of Archbishop of Canterbury, Cramner also wrote… the Book of Common Prayer.

Depending on your denomination, you may never have heard of the Book of Common Prayer. It’s just what it sounds like. Printed prayers that would be used by the Church of England. It was written in those crazy tumultuous times, so he tried to walk a tightrope. Protestant, but not super Protestant. Liturgical, but not totally Catholic.

Reformers didn’t like it. Really didn’t like it. This Book of Common Prayer is sometimes cited as one of the reasons the Puritans despised the Church of England2. The Puritans said the book didn’t go far enough to distance itself from Rome. It’s not the only reason they went to the New World, what would become the United States, but it’s part of it. They also didn’t like how cozy the church was with the state.

3:40 After King Henry died, Edward VI became king. No problem for Cranmer. Edward was on the side of Protestantism. So things hummed along for a while until…

Edward VI died. (exhale)

And Mary Tudor became queen. Mary Tudor was Catholic. The pendulum swung the other way. She brought back Latin mass, rituals, all sorts of stuff. And people who disagreed with her… didn’t fare so well. Including Cranmer.

Forced into isolation in prison, they made him watch his friends as they were burned alive. Under duress he famously signed documents that put him under papal authority. Recanting his writings in support of the Reformation. Yet, he renounced his renunciations before his dead, angry at his own hand for having signed the documents. When his time came to be burned, he made sure that his hands were the first to meet the flames because they had betrayed him.

Cramner’s story brings up a lot of questions for those of us who are Christians: how do we feel about the bonding of Church and State? Because the Church of England was… well it was the Church… of… England. It was a branch of the government, not unlike the Russian Orthodox Church in the time of Tsar Nicholas a few hundred years later. Because the Church was part of the government, it could be used to do the bidding of the government. And when the government switched leaders, when that see saw tipped…everything got upended.

Cramner’s story begs us to ask: What length will we go to to get our theological way, and what will we do to those who disagree with us? Things look great when our people are in charge… but what happens when leadership takes things in another direction? When you go from setting the rules to not even having a prayer.

You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

Let’s jump forward a few… hundred years. To my high school.

In 1998 or 99 I was in the school musical. I was in a lot of them. Thirteen shows in four years. I spent a lot of time in theater. This was in North East Ohio. Before every show we got in the habit of gathering around in the dressing room. We took each others hands. And we prayed. Going around the circle, dressed as baseball players, Russian peasants, mediums, knights in armor, whatever. Taking turns praying for each other and for the show.

Everyone was invited. But because there was no place else to go, we didn’t really have a backstage, people who didn’t want to pray… were there too. In the room with us, usually on the other side of some lockers but they were there with us.

I remember praying out loud before one of these shows. I was a teenager, I was full of energy but not always full of wisdom. I prayed for the people on the other side of the lockers. Not in a loving way, but more in a planting a flag kind of way. Claiming some ground. A way I’m not so proud of.

That moment sticks with me. Our director pulled me aside a few days later and said that, while she supported our right to pray, that we should be more considerate. Not to do it in a way that hurts other people or makes them feel disrespected. She was right. There was a line of decency and I crossed it.

Prayer, especially public prayer is funny like that. It can be both communion with God and weapon. A way to say, “we’re on this side of the lockers, holding hands, in unity. To the exclusion of the people on the other side of the lockers. They’re not like us. They’re not in our club. Let me rub a little salt in that wound.”

Prayer in public spaces is far from easy. Especially when it comes to schools.

By the mid-1900s, God was everywhere in public life. The National Prayer Breakfast, on the money, preached on television and radio, in advertisements all over the country.

School children held their hands over their hearts every morning to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which had recently added the words “under God”. Making it, in the minds of some, a religious expression. Others called it a political expression that happened to mention God. The Gideons handed out Bibles in many schools. God was on the money. Presidents were inaugurated with prayer. Witnesses called to testify in a court of law swore on a Bible that they would tell the whole truth, so help them God.

A wave of public religious expression swept the nation. Sometimes it seemed like everyone wanted to get on board. Including the Board of Regents, the organization that oversees education, in one particular state. They decided that, because the United States had such a rich religious history, that heritage should be reflected by a prayer each morning in the schools.

Which state do you think it was? A state that wanted prayer in schools? This was 1951. Probably somewhere in the South? The Bible belt? Midwest? Kentucky? Georgia?

Nope. This was New York State.

That’s right. New York State. What many today would consider a pretty liberal part of the union. In 1951 their Board of Regents, with a unanimous decision decided to kick off school prayer. It would be a part of the morning flag ceremonies. You know, raising the stars and stripes, and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Adding to this daily ceremony, they created a few lines that became known as the Regent’s Prayer:

PRAYER: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Here’s the deal. It wasn’t mandatory that the schools do this thing. It was a suggestion. Along with the suggestion that schools read speeches by President Eisenhower and documents like the Declaration of Independence3. It was up to the local districts to figure out if and how they would implement it. And many did.

In June 1955 the New York City superintendents suggested that classroom teachers should, quote…

PERSON: “…identify God as the ultimate source of natural and moral law.”4

That went for math classes, science classes, even in shop. Where teachers were encouraged to focus the kids on the handiwork of a Supreme Being that was reflected in the raw materials they were working with5. And then to make ash trays out of it.

Okay, so you guessed which state encouraged schools to pray. Now can you guess who opposed those same prayers?

Well, it wasn’t Catholic bishops or priests. They were generally cool with it. It was Protestant and Jewish leaders who spoke up. That’s right. Against prayer in schools. The ACLU got involved, arguing that the statements of the Board of Regents… well, I’ll let you hear it in your own words, because I think it’s important. They said the superintendent’s statement…

ACLU: “substitutes for the belief in God a vague theism for which, it implies, we all subscribe. The fact is, we do not.”

The complaint of the ACLU and many Protestants was, in part, that the prayer was vague. It was non-specific, which is decidedly not in our heritage and is not really how most of us worship. Lets hear the Regents Prayer one more time:

“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Which God is it talking about? Doesn’t say. To some, that may seem like a solid compromise. But the reality is that most of us worship a very specific deity. It’s a criticism that some have lodged against things like God being on the money and in the Pledge of Allegiance: which God are you talking about?

That didn’t deter some 300 New York school districts from continuing their prayers6, which sounds like a lot but it was only around 10% of the total d istricts in the state. Still, 300 ain’t nothing. Votes to adopt or avoid school prayer soon divided people along religious lines, often separating Catholics who were for it and Jews who were not. As you may remember, anti-Jewish sentiment ran wild in this era. Some people saw this as another reason to justify their persecution of Jews7.

The battle over school prayer led to a lawsuit against a district in Long Island which had adopted the Regent’s Prayer. Three of the five people against the district were Jewish. There was worry that maybe this would create antisemitic hatred in the region. So, when it came time to pick a lawyer to state their case, the parents chose a Catholic one. Just in case.

The legal battle became known as Engle v. Vitale.

The question of the case seems pretty clear: is prayer in schools legal or illegal? This was no easy decision. Because the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

Cut and dry, right? The Congress can’t set up a national religion. Remember, one of the main concerns that early settlers had on the continent was the power that the state had over the Church of England. When the king didn’t like the rules prohibiting divorce he simply created his own church. Budda-bing, budda boom. The government controlled worship, even having one of it’s guys write the Book of Common Prayer.

Let’s hear the next line in the Constitution…

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Ooof. So if you stop people from praying, is that the government prohibiting the free exercise of religion? Or is a school endorsed prayer really free exercise? Because kids are instructed by their teachers to do it and there is social pressure to partake. Kids were allowed to be excused from the prayer. They didn’t have to say it. But if everyone else is doing something… it can be intimidating.

Think about that. Your morning started. They’d raise the American flag. If you were cool with the Pledge, you stayed for that…

PLEDGE: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…

And then you have to leave for fifteen seconds. Maybe thirty by the time they get the kids settled.

(sound of leaving) (sound of muffled prayer)

Then come back in with everyone watching you. Really standing out. Like those kids in my high school who had to stand on the other side of the lockers because the prayer circle was taking up most of the locker room.

I can tell you as a school bus driver during the Coronavirus that social pressure is real. If a student walks into a group of people wearing a mask…

STUDENT: Hey dude, sweet mask!

…they are probably going to put their mask on. But if that same student goes into a group that is not wearing masks

STUDENT: Dude, I don’t care if it kills my grandma and everyone at the nursing home. I’m an American!

then… you know. They’re probably not going to wear one.

Is setting aside time to say a specific prayer in a school Constitutional? Are students being treated equally if some of them have to stand outside for a few minutes every day?

So a group of parents took this case to court.

In August 1959, the county judge decided in favor of the school board. Saying that the Regent’s prayer did not violate the establishment clause and it certainly didn’t violate the free exercise of religion. The judge said that public prayer was a part of the national heritage8. After all, New York state’s judicial system at the time urged it’s member to display the new national motto: “In God We Trust”. How could acknowledging God in our national motto really be all that different from acknowledging him in prayer?

The parents struck out on their first attempt.

UMPIRE: Strike one!

So they tried again in the appellate court.

JUDGE: I find in favor of the school district.

UMPIRE: Strike two!

That didn’t work, and they took the case to the Court of Appeals. The state’s highest court. Which in 1961 upheld the rulings of the lower courts. The chief Justice argued in his own words:

CHIEF JUSTICE: “Not only is this prayer not a violation of the First Amendment, but holding that it is such a violation would be in defiance of all of American history.”9

Strike three. The majority decision pointed to how God was so prevalent in American life. The Declaration of Independence mentions Him. It does. Here it is:

DECLARATION: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

God was on the money (which for paper currency had been there all of four years10), daily prayers in Congress which were also new thanks to Abraham Vereide, the National Day of Prayer, and God being in the Pledge of Allegiance, all which were added in or around the last decade. Plus prayers given at the Continental Congress when the country was founded. They argued that religious expression was in our heritage. Even though most of their examples were pretty recent.

The case had peaked. That was it. It reached the top of the state. The only place they could go was…

ALL GUESTS: The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court. The highest court… in the country.

When we return, how the Supreme Court referenced the Book of Common Prayer to strike down the Regent’s Prayer. Stay with us.


When we left off, New York State suggested that schools offer a prayer. A pretty bland and generic prayer. About 10% of districts picked it up and ran with it, only to have parents bring a lawsuit. Which failed in three different trials until finally reaching the Supreme Court of the United States.

You can actually listen to and read the public part of the trial. It’s fascinating. I’ll put links to it on the website.

The case essentially hinged on this question: was this prayer an act of patriotism or and act of worship? If it was patriotism, then it had a lot in common with the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag and the United States of America. And to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Fundamentally, what is the Pledge of Allegiance? Is it patriotic or is it a statement of faith? As we know, its history is rooted in patriotism. A nationalistic desire. The part about God was only added in during the 1950s. It is, essentially, a patriotic statement with a mention of God,

What about the Regent’s prayer? Listen again. What is it about?

“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

The formula is flipped. Instead of a patriotic statement with a mention of God, the prayer is a statement of faith with a mention of the country.

In part, that is why the Supreme Court struck down the decisions of the lower courts. Because the prayer is clearly a government sponsored endorsement of religion, and not the expression of patriotism that the New York Board of Regents said it was11.

Justice Hugo Black asked for the privilege of writing the majority opinion. Black is an interesting character. Himself theologically liberal, he’s said to have told his son, speaking of the Christian faith:

JUSTICE BLACK: “I cannot believe. But I can’t not believe either.”

He was an agnostic. But his opinion really made me think. It’s quite eloquent and reads like a spiritual pilgrimage, laying out the historic basis for his argument. Here is a piece of it. He’s referring here to the Book of Common Prayer.

JUSTICE BLACK: “It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America. The Book of Common Prayer, which was created under governmental direction and which was approved by Acts of Parliament in 1548 and 1549, set out in minute detail the accepted form and content of prayer and other religious ceremonies to be used in the established, tax supported Church of England. The controversies over the Book and what should be its content repeatedly threatened to disrupt the peace of that country as the accepted forms of prayer in the established church changed with the views of the particular ruler that happened to be in control at the time… Other groups, lacking the necessary political power to influence the Government on the matter, decided to leave England and its established church and seek freedom in America from England’s governmentally ordained and supported religion.”

Essentially, he argued that one of the reasons English settlers came to this country was because they were escaping publicly mandated religion. He goes on to note that, in a great bit of irony, some of those same colonists set up the same kind of system they resented once they got here.

The pilgrims, in other words, became what they themselves disliked about England. Establishing state-funded churches that were involved in their daily lives and dictated worship.

Justice Black was also concerned about what it would mean for the country if this kind of thing were encouraged. Remember that see-saw from the beginning of the show? When one king or queen died, the next was free to change the religion. Throwing the entire country into chaos with every new administration. Justice Black argued that the founding fathers included the establishment clause specifically to keep that from happening in the US.

JUSTICE BLACK: The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say – that the people’s religions must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office.

We don’t often consider that in discussions of church and state. The de-stabilizing effect it would have on the country if we changed religion or denominational preference with each successive administration.

Maybe that seems like a weird thing to be frightened of. But the decision was handed down during the Kennedy administration. John F. Kennedy was the nation’s first Catholic president12. His opponents worried that he would take orders from the pope. That his religion would fundamentally change the United States. Again, that would not be unheard of in the history of the world. That’s what happened in England in the 1500s. It’s the reason Thomas Cramner was burned at the stake.

If Kennedy’s opponents had seen their nightmare become a reality, things would have been bleak indeed. Of course, none of that stuff happened. But looking back through the lens of history, we know the difference it makes when the Church is tied to the State. If you don’t have enough evidence, research the Spanish Inquisition.

I’ve been so taken by Justice Black’s opinion that I’ve recorded it myself and will post it for patrons of the show to hear in full. I think it’s very telling.

As you can imagine, the case caused a stir in the media. Headlines read “God Banned from the State”. People were in an uproar, including Billy Graham. Newswires sent out almost exclusively negative comments from members of congress, ignoring those who sided with the decision.

Sensationalism got the best of them. As it does all of us from time to time. People worried that religion was being outlawed in the country. The thing is… it wasn’t. The court had actually done a lot to make that distinction. The Regent’s prayer was illegal because it had been written and implemented by a government body. They did not outlaw prayer, or prayer in schools. Just prayers written and expressed by the government. There’s a big difference.

Even today, you can still pray in schools. Clearly, I did it when I was in high school. The crux is in who is prescribing the prayer.

We have been arguing about school prayer ever since. It still comes up, some sixty years later. Conservative Christian leaders often look at the state of schools and wish that we had prayer in schools. More specifically, scheduled prayer in schools as part of the daily routine. You can still do it on your own in schools, it’s just not part of our early morning habits.

79% of Americans questioned in a Gallop poll at the time said they supported “religious exercises” in schools.

Justice Hugo Black received over a thousand letters in opposition. Some of them are downright nasty. But he responded in the same way President Truman had responded years earlier when he was asked to institute a National Day of Prayer. They both quoted Matthew six which tells Christians to pray in their rooms with their doors closed rather than in public where their acts of piety can be seen. Jesus prayed in public. The disciples prayed in public. It’s not as much about the place as it is the reason, the heart behind the prayer.

Here is Matthew 6:1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 6:1 NASB)

Let’s bring this home. Why do we pray? You and I. Why do we do it?

Jesus sometimes prayed in order to teach His followers how to do it. Some would argue that that is what the schools were doing: teaching children how to pray as Jesus taught his disciples. With some notable differences. As far as we know, the disciples didn’t begin their day reciting the same prayer. It brings up important questions: do prayers have any spiritual real weight if they are rote? Said without passion or feeling? That’s what the Puritans argued. The Puritans also wrestled with the Book of Common prayer because it wasn’t to their theological liking. The Regents prayer didn’t mention Jesus or which God it referred to.

Also, what happens if a new religious fad enters in? In the United States as it stands now, it probably won’t change the fundamental bedrock of the country. If Mitt Romney had become president, we wouldn’t all have had to convert to Mormonism, just like Americans weren’t forced into Catholicism under Kennedy.

Usually, when we talk about school prayer there is this sense that our country is fundamentally changing. That God is being pulled from the public eye. Yet, this happened fifty years ago. Most of the people listening now did not grow up with the Regent’s prayer. Preachers talk about Engel v Vitale like it was yesterday. We haven’t recited rote prayers in schools for half a century. And somehow our union still stands.

Is religious expression in schools a good thing, a bad thing, or something in between? We need to celebrate the fact that our country is not subject to the theological whims of our leaders. Prayer is a good thing. A great thing. But remember my story about praying in the locker room before a show? Prayer can also be a weapon. It can bring us closer to God, and we can use it to push others further away. The funny thing about weapons… we love them when we’re holding them. But when they are aimed at us, when we stand next to the fire ourselves… the story changes pretty quickly. Just ask Thomas Cramner.

This episode was inspired by the book “In God We Trust” by Kevin Kruse. While he declined my invitation to appear on the show, I still strongly recommend the book. “The Evangelicals” by Frances Fitzgerald was also a great benefit. The full text of Justice Black’s opinion is a really interesting read. I’ll put links to it in your show notes and on the website. Also, Truce is a listener-supported show. If you become a monthly patron you’ll gain access to my reading of the opinion. You can learn more at I’m working hard to do this job full-time. I’m a long ways away from that right now, but your gift of any size will really help.

You can find Truce on social media at @trucepodcast. You can also learn more about me and my book “Cradle Robber” and my films “Bringing up Bobby” and “Between the Walls” all at the website at

Special thanks to everyone who gave me their voices for this episode.Eric Nevins of the Halfway There Podcast, Jenna Erlandson from the Bridge of the Faithful Podcast, and Shea and Michelle Watkins of The Pantry Podcast. Additional audio came from CSPAN.

God willing I’ll be back in two weeks with more. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.

1Gospel Coalition

2Gospel Coalition and Justice Black’s decision

3One Nation Under God 171

4One Nation Under God 171

5One Nation Under God 171

6One Nation Under God 172

7One Nation Under God 173

8One Nation Under God 175

9One Nation Under God 175

10One Nation Under God 120

11One Nation Under God 147

12One Nation Under God 184

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