I’ve been thinking about Dad a lot lately, and this memory came back to me earlier in the week.
The day before I turned 10, June 25, 1962, the United States Supreme Court decided in Engel v. Vitale that a prayer approved by the New York Board of Regents for use in schools violated the First Amendment by constituting an establishment of religion.
The following year, in Abington School District v. Schempp, the Court banned Bible readings in public schools for similar reasons.
These two landmark Supreme Court decisions focused on the place of religion in public education, and particularly the place of Protestantism, which had long been accepted as the given America’s religion.
Both decisions ultimately changed the face of American civil society.
Saying that the reaction to the cases was immediate and intense is an understatement. I remember Dad going totally ape over it!
Most of the pastors in Germantown felt the decisions essentially kicked God out of the public school.
National Christian leaders reacted immediately!
Some conservatives, like Billy Graham and Cardinal Francis Spellman, along with the more liberal Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike, decried the decisions.
But, reactions were mixed. Others, including the National Association of Evangelicals, applauded the Court for appropriately separating the state from the affairs of the church, claiming that a state approved prayer constituted the state meddling in religious affairs and forcing a particular religion on students, which was the job of their parents.
Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, supported the prayer decision because the editors thought school prayer was a practiced tradition which had become secularized, and essentially meant nothing.
Prior to that, every Wednesday in the Germantown school district, a local pastor from all the churches came to school and delivered a Wednesday morning devotional.
Every Wednesday, every pastor took a turn.
Rev. Eslinger, Rev. Bressler, Rev. Merrell, my Dad, and even the Catholic Priest spoke to us.
There were no Rabbis in Germantown.
I remember being so proud when it was Dad’s turn. I’m sure I puffed UP a little, listened a little more closely, and tried to remember what he said as it would surely be discussed at the dinner table.
We all sat quietly, listened, or pretended to, and soaked it in.
Even the hoody kids!
But, all that changed in 1962.
The battle, however, didn’t start in 1962; it started over 100 years before.
In the “Bible Wars” of 1869-73, there was a court case, Minor v. Board of Education, in which the Ohio State Supreme Court upheld the school board’s resolution to remove Bible readings from the school day.
It was part of a compromise.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Cincinnati was a booming economic hub. The upper Mississippi River valley was drawing immigrants attracted by its economic success.
We don’t think of it this way now, but it was a religiously and ethnically diverse city.
Thousands of Irish Catholics, German Lutherans, Freethinkers, as well as large Jewish congregations, whose rabbis were national Jewish leaders, moved to and thrived in the Queen City.
A system of Catholic schools had existed since the 1840s, and with an influx of Catholic immigrants, enrollment in these schools rivaled the enrollment of Cincinnati’s public schools by 1869.
The Cincinnati schools had about 19,000 students, the Catholic system about 15,000.
The public school board brought resolutions to merge the systems. Under the agreement, religion would not be taught in the schools during the week, but Catholics could use the buildings on the weekends for religious instruction.
BTW, the Catholics had better facilities.
Catholic leaders proposed a “complementary” plan, stipulating that there would be no Bible reading in the schools during the week. The public schools were using the Protestant Bible (i.e the King James Version), which the Catholics decried as they used the Douay-Rheims Bible.
The board passed the resolution in 1867, a lawsuit quickly followed, petitioning the court to reinstate Bible reading. The result was the landmark 1870 case Minor v. Board of Education like I said UP there.
Just shy of 100 years later, in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in the Engle v. Vitale case. It said a written prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional, even though it was nondenominational.
Thirty days later, three constitutional amendments to allow prayer were proposed.
None of them passed.
In 1963, on June 17, The Supremes ruled that prayers written for public school by the States were unconstitutional, and that the required recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or daily Bible readings violated the “establishment clause.”
And, that was it.
The pastors never came to the school any longer on Wednesday mornings.
They were all WORDless Wednesdays from then on.