Guest Essayist: Joseph Knippenberg

In Engel v. Vitale (370 U.S. 421 [1962]), the Supreme Court took up the question of school prayer and rejected as unconstitutional the New York state practice of beginning each school day with the recitation of the Regent’s Prayer.  It was the first of a series of decisions regarding public prayer that included rejecting recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the reading of bible verses in schools (Abingdon v. Schempp [1963]), rejecting invocations and benedictions at public school graduation ceremonies (Lee v. Weisman [1992]), rejecting student-led prayer at high school football games (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe [2000]), implicitly and conditionally upholding a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day (Wallace v. Jaffree [1985]), and upholding prayer at legislative and other public meetings (Marsh v. Chambers [1983] and Town of Greece v. Galloway [2014]).  While the Court’s doctrine has developed over time—above all, in explicitly distinguishing prayer in schools from prayer in other public settings—many of the issues and many of the problems in its jurisprudence were already evident in this first case.

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