by Edd Doerr
Education Week (May 12) had an interesting article reminding us of the importance of the Supreme Court's school prayer rulings of 1962 and 1963, Engel v Vitale and Abington School District v Schempp. These rulings are important because they reaffirmed the church-state separation principle in the First Amendment and confirmed that public schools are required by the Constitution and our society's pluralism to be religiously neutral. Many conservatives got bent out of shape and launched repeated campaigns to amend the Constitution to authorize government to impose religious exercises on all kids. These campaigns all failed, not because of efforts by humanists but because sensible mainstream people and groups supported the rulings.
There is much still to be said about these rulings. First of all, at the time of the rulings only about half of the school districts in the US had school prayer and Bible reading, virtually all in the original east coast states and the states of the former Confederacy. Next, the rulings came at about the same time as the Civil Rights movement and massive resistance to desegregation. The rulings and the massive resistance combined to trigger the rise of the conservative Christian school movement. Previously about 90% of all nonpublic schools were run by the Catholic Church. That figure has slipped to under half while Protestant enrollment has surged.
Engel and Schempp, by rendering public schools religiously neutral, removed the reason for the 19th century founding of Catholic schools in the US, the Protestant hegemony in the public schools. In the wake of Engel and Schempp, Catholic schools began to decline in enrollment from 5.5 million students in 1965 to about 2.1 million today. Catholic school enrollment decline was further related to the election of a Catholic President in 1960, the Second Vatican Counail of 1962-1965 (which opened the windows and let in a lot of fresh air), and the Vatican's 1968 denunciation of contraception, against the wishes of its own advisers and angering the majority of Catholics worldwide. When President Nixon sought to initiate school vouchers, studies by Catholic universities studies showed that the enrollment decline had nothing to do with economics but with "changing parental preferences".
Between 1966 and 2007 there have been 27 state referenda on various plans to divert public funds to religious schools, including in heavily Catholic states like New York and Massachuestts. In every case Catholic voters joined others in handing huge defeats to the voucher folks. I well remember campaigning in Michigan in 1970 for an amendment to strengthen the state constitution's ban on tax aid to religious schools (which I helped draft); I was being heckled at a lecture in a Lutheran church when a Catholic nun in uniform rose to defend me and note that she was a public school teacher.
We should also note now that Catholic Democrats in Congress are among the strongest supporters of public education and church-state separation and opponents of diverting public funds to religious private schools. We might also note that a school prayer amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives in 1971 largely because of the efforts of Rep. Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest.