N. Y. State Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Prayer in Public Schools

Children cannot be forced to pray in public school, but the court cannot compel the school to abolish its prayer, it was ruled here yesterday by State Supreme Court Justice Bernard S. Meyer, in the case of a brief prayer being delivered in five public schools in Long Island, at the recommendation of the State Board of Regents.

The prayer is being recited by about 6,000 public school children every day in their classes. It reads: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessing upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country.” Five parents have filed suit against the school hoard, objecting that the board was violating the Constitution by adopting compulsory prayers. This, they argued, was a flagrant violation of the separation of Church and State. They were supported in their argument by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In issuing his ruling, Justice Meyer said that the First Amendment did not prohibit the noncompulsory saying of a nondenominational prayer. The clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Justice Meyer hold, however, that the regulation calling for the opening of each school day with prayer in the Herricks School District was “mandatory in form” and therefore, “objectionable.”

In his 46-page opinion, Justice Meyer noted that the “free-exercise” provision of Federal and State Constitutions required that parents he advised of the adoption of the prayer, its wording and the procedure to be followed when it was said, “so that a conscious choice can be made whether a child shall or shall not participate.” Justice Meyer held that “freedom of religion is not an absolute right; the state may impose restrictions if reasonable in relation to the end sought to be attained.”

Religious tensions and divisions over the saying of the prayer do not constitute a constitutional reason for not permitting it to be said, “Justice Meyer declared. He quoted from a decision in 1839 by the Superintendent of Common Schools of New York State saying schools could be opened with prayer if it were not made a matter of school discipline.

The school board was reported satisfied with the decision. The five parents said they were far from satisfied and planned to appeal. “We’ll go to the Supreme Court before we’re through,” one said. George E. Rundquist, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union, said also that an appeal would be made to the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court. The reason for the appeal, be explained, is that the decision “does not clearly hold that publicly supported schools and facilities may not be used for prayer and other religious devotions, and because we feel that even non-compulsory regulations pertaining to the saying of a prayer are unconstitutional.”

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