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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
School Prayer Decision (Madalyn Murray O'Hair)
Before that Woman Kicked God out of the Classroom
While the famous 1963 Supreme Court decision Murray v. Curlett helped to end, at least in theory, the unconstitutional practice of mandatory prayer recitation in public schools, it also gave rise to profound distortions of American history by school prayer advocates. One example of this is the notion that "Before that Atheist Madalyn Murray threw God out of the classroom", prayer in school was a well-established American institution which established a religious and moral tone throughout the culture.
Prior to the American Revolution, various religious bodies enjoyed a unique position of power. Madalyn O'Hair noted in her book "Freedom Under Siege" that "Reading Colonial history immediately prior to the Revolution, specifically the theological clashes between the states, one finds that the Founding Fathers had become completely disenchanted with each colony's insistence upon a particular sect established and supported financially by tax funds and the body politic."
These "established" churches had enormous power. One had to support the church through taxes, and often had to be a member in order to exercise various rights and privileges, such as even owning property. It was no surprise, then, that "come the Revolution", a process of "disestablishment" began. The churches were taken off the social welfare rolls and were no longer "established" as the official religious body of a region. Naturally, minority religious groups supported the idea; but many churches opposed the disestablishment process, seeing the demise of their privileged status in the new Republic.
Virginia led the way with its Declaration of Rights, which was enacted in June of 1776. Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey soon followed, and in 1777, New York, North Carolina and Georgia disestablished their respective churches. Massachusetts waited until 1833.
After the wave of disestablishment of the official state churches, many states -- the original thirteen and the new territories which joined the United States -- took an ambiguous view of official religion. Most states, for instance, did not mandate religious exercise in public schools. In fact, by the 1960's, only five states actually had laws which required Bible recitation in their public schools.
Seven other states permitted Bible reading, but allowed for students who did not wish to participate to be excused. Even that practice, of course, violated the rights of non-participating students (both religious and non-believer), and courts in 11 states ruled this prayer formula to be unconstitutional. These legal decisions cover the period of 1890-1910.
The period of 1910 to 1930 witnessed vigorous attempts to reverse this trend, however, and institute school prayer. Groups such as the National Reform Association succeeded in having laws passed in 17 states which made some provision for prayer and Bible recitation in schools. The rationale was that this religious exercise would \benefit\ society. Sometimes, prayer ritual was linked to other invasive movements, including the Prohibitionist craze and other bizarre social experiments. Even so, practices varied considerably from state to state. In some jurisdictions, the option of whether or not to institute prayer was left to local school systems.
Contrary to the assertion of school prayer supporters, the practice has only limited precedent throughout the more than two centuries our Republic has existed. It was never universal -- just as there has never been a time when the majority of the American population consisted of regular church-goers. Even where school prayer did exist, it turned out to be a source of social conflict and divisiveness, often with various religious sects arguing with each other over whose prayer should be recited, or whose Bible should be used for the regular devotions.
The Murray v. Curlett case was actually the first of its kind -- it addressed not just the question of \religious liberty\ for believers, but the notion of liberties for Atheists. Subsequent cases, though, have also been fought on behalf of an important American principle -- the total, absolute separation of government and religion.
In this respect, all of these separationist cases are part of a larger continuum, one which stretches back to the founding days of our Republic when men such as Jefferson and Madison began the task of \disestablishing\ state religions.