Atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair played no role in the Supreme Court's school prayer decision of 1962.
In the Engel v. Vitale case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-1 against New York's "Regents' prayer," a "non-denominational" prayer state education officials had composed for public schoolchildren to recite.
The government-sponsored religious devotion was challenged in court by a group of parents from New Hyde Parkūsome atheists, some believers. O'Hair was not involved in the case at all.
One year later, a case originated by a Philadelphia-area man named Ed Schempp challenging mandatory Bible reading in Pennsylvania schools reached the Supreme Court. At the same time, Murray O'Hair was challenging a similar practice as well as the recitation of the Lord's Prayer in Maryland public schools. The Supreme Court consolidated the cases and in 1963 ruled 8-1 that devotional Bible reading or other government-sponsored religious activities in public schools are unconstitutional.
The Engel and Schempp cases were a result of the changing religious landscape of the United States. As religious minorities grew more confident of their rightful place in American society, they came to resent the de facto Protestant flavor in many public schools. Litigation was inevitable. The high court's rulings striking down mandatory prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools would have occurred if O'Hair had never been born. The controversial Texas atheist serves as a convenient villain for Religious Right propagandists who hate religious liberty and church-state separation.
It is also important to remember that neither of these rulings removed prayer or Bible reading from public schools. Truly voluntary religious exercises in public schools have never been held illegal. The rulings of the early '60s simply prevented the government, through the public schools, from intervening in sensitive religious matters. Voluntary student-initiated Bible study and prayer clubs were reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1990, when the justices upheld the Equal Access Act, a federal law that permits students to form religion clubs at public high schools under certain conditions.
The rulings from the 1960s are also not hostile toward religion, as the justices took pains to point out. In the Abington decision, Justice Tom Clark wrote for the court majority, "[I]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and
historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."
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