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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Recital of Prayers in Schools Unconstitutional

The United States Supreme Court, in a decision of historic importance, today ruled that daily recital of prayers in public schools, even though non-compulsory, was unconstitutional.

The court held that the recital of such prayers in schools financed through public taxation violated the religious freedom guarantees in the Constitution. The decision was handed down in a New York case. It will affect all public schools throughout America.

The Supreme Court’s vote was six to one. The court’s decision was written by Justice Hugo Black . The dissenter was Justice Potter Stewart. Justices Felix Frankfurter and Byron Black did not participate.

The dispute that the court decided today arose in New Hyde Park, N.Y. in 1958 when the Board of Education voted to have a so-called “Regents Prayer” follow the salute to the flag each morning. After objecting parents filed suit, 16 other parents were allowed to intervene in support of the School Board. The School Board contended the prayer was appropriately “non-sectarian.”

The decision ruled that New York school authorities had, in effect, established an official state religion “wholly inconsistent” with the First Amendment. An atmosphere of rapt attention existed in the chamber when the dramatic and momentous decision was handed down.

Parents of children in four schools challenged the prayer. The case was pursued through the courts, leading to today’s momentous decision by the Supreme Court. Included among parents bringing the action were Jews, Unitarians, members of the Ethical Culture Society, and non-believers.

SAYS STATE INSTITUTIONS MUST ‘STAY OUT’ OF SANCTIONING PRAYERS

In writing the court’s decision, Justice Black stressed that “it is neither sacrilege nor anti-religious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.”

He said it had been argued that to apply the Federal constitution to state or local laws respecting religion in schools would indicate “a hostility toward religion or toward prayer.” But, he declared, “nothing could be more wrong.”

Justice Black emphasized that “by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ Prayers, the State of New York had adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the establishment clause (of the First Amendment). ” He said the court agreed with the contention of the objecting parents that the clause was violated because the prayer “was composed by Governmental officials as part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs.” He referred to traditions of American democracy in connection with separation of church and state.

He rebuffed an argument that constitutionality was retained because the children were not legally obliged to repeat the prayer orally. He said “the establishment clause, unlike the free exercise clause, does not depend upon any showing of direct governmental compulsion and is violated by the enactment of laws which establish an official religion whether those laws operate directly to coerce non-observing individuals or not.”

Furthermore, “a direct, coercive pressure” exists when the “power, prestige and financial support of Government is placed behind a particular religious belief,” said Justice Black. “The establishment clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its ‘unhallowed perversion’ by a civil magistrate.”

“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?” he asked.

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