S3:E39 Is School Prayer Illegal?

S3:E39 Is School Prayer Illegal?

When did school prayer become illegal?

American Christians have disagreed about school prayer ever since it was declared illegal in the 1960s by the Supreme Court of the United States. But what were the conditions surrounding that debate?

In this episode of Truce, we break down the debate using Justice Hugo Black’s majority argument against school prayer. It goes all the way back to the founding of the Church of England when Thomas Cranmer wrote the Book of Common Prayer and helped the king solidify his divorce. Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest role in the Church of England. But when Mary Tudor rose to the role of queen, she executed Cranmer because she was Catholic and he was Protestant.

Justice Black’s decision hinged on the story of Cranmer. England was thrown into turmoil with every new regent because they could change the religion. The US, he argued, was founded on principles that would keep that from happening. The Establishment Clause of the US Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion. So… is school prayer a violation of the Establishment Clause?

When did school prayer become illegal? 1962.

What do you think?

Discussion Questions:

  • Have you ever used prayer as a weapon like Chris did in the locker room for his school play?
  • What are the benefits of prayers that are written down? What are the drawbacks?
  • Do you recite written prayers? Why or why not?
  • Was the Regent’s Prayer right in being non-specific about which God it referred to?
  • Do you think your country would benefit from a national religion? What if that religion could be changed over time?
  • Did you ever pray in school?
  • Should we pray in schools?
  • What did you think of Justice Hugo Black’s majority opinion which used the example of the Church of England in the 1500s as a reason why we should not have school prayer?

Helpful links:

S3:E34 Are Nativity Scenes Illegal on Public Land?

S3:E34 Are Nativity Scenes Illegal on Public Land?

When can manger scenes appear on public land?

The 1983 Supreme Court case Lynch v Donnelly brought church and state together in one important decision. In it, the court decided that a city-owned creche (also known as a manger scene) could remain on private land because it was part of a greater display. It wasn’t a stand-alone creche. It was surrounded by Christmas trees, a Santa’s village, and more. The diorama could stay because it held no significant religious value. It was, in their words, “ceremonial deism”.

In this modern era where it seems like religion is slipping away from public life, it’s good to stop and ask what we’re losing. Do our public displays of piety have any real Christian weight to them in the first place? What are we fighting for if “In God We Trust” doesn’t specify which God it’s referring to?

When can manger scenes appear on public land? The answer is… “it depends”.

Supreme Court audio for this episode was used with a Creative Commons License from Oyez.org. The audio was edited from it’s original form.

Helpful Links:

Discussion Questions:

  • Where do you see examples of ceremonial deism?
  • What do expressions of ceremonial deism hope to achieve in our society? Does it work? How can we make them better?
  • Do you like seeing God on the money? Why?
  • Where would you like to see more of God in the public square? Where would you like to see less?
  • Should we be more specific in our public displays?
  • Do you think the manger scene can be both religious and non-religious?