For centuries in the Western world, organized education was church education; colonial schools established on the American shores therefore naturally reflected a religious orientation. Prior to the early nineteenth-century migration of Irish to this country, the orientation of these schools was Protestant?a fact that contributed to the establishment and growth of the Roman Catholic parochial school system. Nevertheless, when the RELEASED TIME plan for religious instruction was initiated in 1914, the majority of Roman Catholic children still attended public schools. The plan thus provided for separate religious instruction classes for Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews. Roman Catholic Church spokesmen condemned the Supreme Court's decision in MCCOLLUM V. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1948) invalidating the program. Previously, however, Roman Catholics had protested against public school religious instruction with a Protestant orientation, and had instituted lawsuits challenging such programs' constitutionality. Public school authorities in New York chose to formulate their own "non-sectarian" prayer, which was submitted to and received the approval of prominent religious spokesmen of the three major faiths. The twenty-two-word prayer read: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country."
The denominational neutrality of the prayer, the Supreme Court held in ENGEL V. VITALE (1962), was immaterial. Nor was it relevant that observance on the part of students was voluntary (nonparticipating students were not even required to be in the classroom or assembly hall while the prayer was recited). Under the establishment clause, the Court said, aid to all religions was as impermissible as aid to one religion, even if the aid was noncoercive. The constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION means at least that it is "no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as part of a religious program carried on by government."
One year after Engel, the Court, in ABINGTON SCHOOL DISTRICT V. SCHEMPP, was called upon to rule on the constitutionality of two practices in the public schools common throughout the nation, prayer recitation and devotional Bible reading. In respect to the former it ruled immaterial the fact that, unlike Engel, the recited prayer had...