-by Jeff Olson
It was 57 years ago this week, June 25, 1962, that the U.S. Supreme Court case of Engel v. Vitale was decided. The Court essentially dismantled the long-standing tradition of school prayer and struck down this simple 22-word nonsectarian prayer from New York schools: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.”
It is often claimed that the main issue in this case was coercion since it involved a state-approved prayer. However, this is at best a misportrayal. The Court even conceded that…”the schools did not compel any pupil to join in the prayer over his or her parent’s objection. “ Since the prayer was both voluntary and nondenominational, why wasn’t it upheld? The Court explained, “Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause, as it might from the Free Exercise Clause, of the 1st Amendment….[It] ignores the essential nature of the program’s constitutional defects….[P]rayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation of Church and State….” Thus, the real issue here was simply the presence of prayer in the public school system.
The Court’s decision was historical in several ways, one of which was the acceleration of its intrusion into the social/cultural realm of American life. This, along with its highly questionable jurisprudence, has been perpetuated in religious freedom cases ever since. Here, we will take a very brief look. First, is the misinterpretation of the Constitution. The 1st Amendment is the bedrock of the Bill of Rights, a state’s rights document which delineates the specific areas of jurisdiction outside the Constitutional authority of the federal government. Unfortunately, the states (and the people) lost this vital protection and much of their sovereignty when the Court completed federalizing the Bill of Rights in its entirety by way of misapplication of the 14th Amendment in 1940. Second, “Wall of Separation of Church and State” is a metaphor and concept nowhere to be found in the American constitution nor in any other founding document. It was extracted (out of its context and meaning) from a personal letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a Connecticut Baptist group in 1802. The Court referenced this phrase in earlier decisions, thus perpetuating a myth which to this day still has authoritative gloss on the 1st Amendment. Third, the change in judicial philosophy that this case reflects. The Founders’ Biblical natural law philosophy was the standard for American law and government until the early-mid 20th century when a philosophy of relativism (better known as “legal positivism”) began taking root. In short; legal positivism considers social standards of the time as the authority for law (ie. legislative enactments, judicial decisions, or social customs). In this approach, law is merely a social construction. History, original intent, precedent, principle, and the views and beliefs of the Founders are considered irrelevant to the law and prohibitive to the successful evolution of a society. As expressed by Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall when he was asked to describe his judicial philosophy: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.” A second philosophical aspect of Engel v.Vitale was its dismissal of the cultural importance not only of long-standing traditional (and constitutional) school prayer, but also prayer’s role within the moral component of education itself. From the early years of Western Civilization, education’s most vital role was to provide a moral framework from which to gain and apply knowledge. Education was understood as: the cultivation of the person’s own intellect, reason and imagination; the development of order in the soul; the search for truth; learning what it is to be fully human; and learning to live within and contribute to a civil/social moral order grounded in transcendent principles of truth, justice and freedom. Fourth, in effect, Engel v.Vitale struck at the heart of religious freedom, transforming the 1st Amendment prohibition against the establishment of a national church into the prohibition of a voluntary religious activity by students – and subsequently by others.
After more than 50 years, we have seen the results of what has become a “Living Constitution,”one with all sail and no anchor, evolving our country from a nation of laws into a nation of men. Moral relativism has proven itself a failure, as we have seen much of America’s moral and social fabric unravel. Practically every metric regarding social behavioral trends in America since the mid-1960s has shown a steady decline in traditional morality, including drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancies, broken homes, violent crimes and beyond. While some of these trends have slowed in recent years, regaining all of this lost ground will probably never happen. What we can do is learn the lessons of history, emphasize and prioritize our roles within our families, churches, schools, and other social/civic institutions, and make informed and wise choices which favor freedom and self-reliance over security and servitude.