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Jew Engel outlaws Christian school prayer in 1962



Freethought Today November 1988

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Madalyn Murray O'Hair

The Making Of A Modern Myth

by Robert E. Nordlander

This address was delivered by Robert E. Nordlander at the eleventh annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. in Madison, Wisconsin on October 8, 1988.

It is a pleasure to attend another [1988] FFRF convention. I am happy to be among so many Atheists and Freethinkers--with the rational and enlightened folk of America and other countries.

The Baltimore Sun ran an article covering the Schempp-Murray United States Supreme Court decision of June 17, 1963, that featured Madalyn Murray O'Hair as the heroine, or villainess, of the historic event which transpired some 25 years ago. Focus was on O'Hair who, we were told, drove prayer from the public schools of our country. The feature was similar to other American media coverage, in the wake of the publicity attending the celebration of the anniversary by the O'Hair organization in Austin. The sampling I saw was grossly inaccurate, suggesting to me that the American media have contributed to the making of another myth or legend. This time history was rewritten to suggest that but for the perseverence of one Atheist, one Madalyn Murray O'Hair, children are not allowed to pray in the public schools of America. I am here as a poor man's Noam Chomsky, to set the historic record straight and retrieve it from the Orwellian memory-hole to which the American media have damned it.

There is one fact which we must familarize ourselves with from the outset. There has been no Supreme Court decision banning prayer in the public schools. There has been a decision banning government-sponsored prayer. Children are free to pray silently as many have always done.

Another fact which we ought to assimilate is that Madalyn Murray O'Hair had nothing to do whatsoever with the Supreme Court decision that banned government-sponsored prayer from the public schools. That decision was made some 26 years ago on June 25, 1962 in Engel v. Vitale. Engel, a Jewish resident of New York, objected to the prayer composed by the New York State Board of Regents and recommended for adoption by the public school districts of New York. The prayer read as follows:


"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachings and ourcountry."

There was no state law mandating this prayer; it was simply a recommendation on the part of the Regents, a governmental authority that possesses some official authority. The prayer originally was recommended in November, 1951, during the Korean War. According to the policy statement issued by the Regents, the purpose of the prayer was to make sure that children would acquire "respect for lawful authority and obedience to law."

Another purpose was to make sure that children "will be properly prepared to follow the faith of his or her father, as he or she receives the same at mother's knee or father's side and as such faith is expounded and strengthened by his or her religious leaders." It would appear that respect for authority, obedience and the promotion of religious faith among children attending the public schools were top priority items for the political hacks who concocted the New York Regents' prayer. What a strange set of priorities in a presumably democratic society where one would think that the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to think rationally and critically would be among the top priorities of the educational establishment! The Regent priorities would have been more suitable for the Italy of Benito Mussolini or the Germany of Adolf Hitler.

The Regents' prayer caused a great deal of controversy in New York City. The board of education in that city rejected the prayer and substituted instead the fourth verse of "America," which was to be recited by public school children. How many of you remember the verse which extols a monarch in the sky as the author of republican liberty?


"Our fathers' God, to Thee, Author of Liberty, to Thee we sing. Long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light, protect us by Thy might, great God our King."

It would appear that this prayer will serve just as well to turn children into obedient and unthinking robots loyal to the irrational supernaturalism of their fathers and mothers. Perhaps the members of the New York City Board of Education thought it was a better prayer than the Regents' prayer, since religion was combined with patriotism in a tune serving as a national anthem of Great Britain and once serving as the national anthems of Imperial Germany and Switzerland.

By the time the Engel complaint reached the United States Supreme Court in 1962, about ten percent of the public school districts of the State of New York had adopted the Regents' prayer. Engel, who resided in the Long Island New Hyde Park School District, along with other taxpayers with children in the district's public schools, objected to the prayer. With the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, the Ethical Cultural Society and other groups, the Engel complaint made it to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in Engel's favor by a six to one vote. Justice Hugo Black delivered the majority opinion which reads in part:


"The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say . . . . Under that Amendment's prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, as reinforced by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, government in this country, be it state or federal, is without power to prescribe by law any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of govermentally-sponsored religious activity."

This is when the United States Supreme Court outlawed government-sponsored prayer. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was not involved in this litigation at all.

It was the Engel v. Vitale decision that caused a public outcry against the Supreme Court. Here are the words of Senator Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, who is still in the Senate--to use a Biblical phrase--"unto this very day."


"Can it be that we too, are ready to embrace the foul concepts of atheism? "Somebody is tampering with America's soul, I leave it to you who that somebody is."

It goes downhill from there. Representative Mendel Rivers of South Carolina said:


"The Court has now officially stated its disbelief in God Almighty."

Senator Sam Ervin from North Carolina offered a remark that was equal in its profundity:


"The Supreme Court has made God unconstitutional."

And of course, we cannot forget those profound words of Christian wisdom uttered by Representative George Andrews of Alabama:


"They put the Negroes in the schools, and now they've driven God out."

Poor God!

The remarks of the Reverend Billy Graham should remind us why the Freedom From Religion Foundation exists in the first place:


"This is another step towards the secularization of the United States . . . the frammers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

Even the "Great Engineer" Herbert Hoover put in his two-cents worth by calling the decision "a disintegration of one of the most sacred of American heritages."

One of the most ominous reactions came from the Jesuit weekly America, which warned Jews in its September 1, 1962 edition that Jewish involvement in Engel v. Vitale and similar litigation could incite anti-Semitism in American society although in typical Jesuit fashion, it acknowledged "that full responsibility for the decision in Engel v. Vitale is not to be pinned on the Jewish community." America noted "that well-publicized Jewish spokesman, Leo Pfeffer, and such organizations as the American Jewish Congress" were not the only "villains" in the drama; others were worthy of hisses and boos from the wider American audience also. These included "the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ethical Culture Society, the Humanist Association, some Unitarians, many atheists and certain other groups with doctrinaire views on the meaning and application of the principle of separation of Church and State." In spite of this caveat against "blaming the Jews," the theme of the editorial could best be described as telling the Jews to "knock it off" with this church/state litigation.

So much for the decision banning government-sponsored prayers from the public schools.

Now let us turn to the Schempp-Murray decision of June 17, 1963.

This decision banned the use of the Bible for devotional exercises in the public schools. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was involved in this litigation. She was not the primary litigant, however. Her role was secondary to that of the principal plaintiff Ed Schempp, a Unitarian from Abington Township, Pennsylvania.

Before I get into some of the particulars of the Schempp-Murray decision, I would like to briefly survey the American use of the Bible for devotions in the public schools.

It is one of the ironies of history that Horace Mann, who is regarded as the "father of the American public school," has become one of the "whipping boys" of the reactionary religious right. Pat Robertson and others of his ilk have taken great delight in denouncing Mann for his alleged promotion of "godless" education when, if the truth were to be known, he supported the reading of the Bible in the public schools of Massachusetts because he sincerely believed that the Bible was a nonsectarian work of literature.

Because of the mistaken attitude of Mann and others, the use of the Bible in the public schools proved to be a great source of conflict and suffering because Protestants believed that the King James Bible was the "real" Bible or "Word of God," whereas Roman Catholics held similar views concerning the Douay Bible, the standard Roman Catholic English translation. During the early days of Bible-reading in the American public schools, Protestants held absolute political power. They would not allow Roman Catholic children in the public schools to read from the Douay version and even used physical force to make Catholic children read the Bible out loud in the public schools. Tom Wall, an eleven-year-old boy, was subjected to whipping on his hands for 30 minutes before he relented because of the pain, and read the required reading in the King James Bible. Bridget Donaghue, a young girl living in Ellsworth, Maine, was expelled from school because she refused to read from the Protestant Bible. The Wall/ Donaghue incidents are from the 1850's. Earlier, in the 1840's, riots occurred in Philadelphia becuase Roman Catholics had the temerity to request use of the Douay Bible for Catholic children. Protestants burned two Catholic churches down and the homes of many Irish immigrants were burned.

In 1890, the Wisconsin Supreme Court outlawed devotional reading of Bible verses in the Weiss decision, when parents of Catholic children attending the Edgerton public schools objected to the reading of the King James Bible. A similar decision was rendered by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1910.

In Pennsylvania, at the time of the Ed Schempp complaint against the Abington Township school district, there was a statute that required the reading of ten verses from the Bible every day before the regular work of the public schools began. At Abington Township High School, where Ed Schempp's son was in attendance, everyone was requested to join in the recitation of "The Lord's Prayer" after the reading of the obligatory ten Bible verses. Schempp won his point in litigation before a panel of three judges but the losers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Baltimore, Madalyn Murray (O'Hair) was fighting the same battle against school authorities. In her case, there was no statute on the law books of Maryland which required Bible-reading and the recitation of "The Lord's Prayer." The Baltimore public schools, where her son William was enrolled, had this requirement of its pupils since 1905. O'Hair lost in the Maryland courts and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear her complaint.

In light of Engel v. Vitale, the complaints of both Schempp and O'Hair with respect to "The Lord's Prayer" had, for all practical purposes, been conceded by the court. The Schempp-Murray decision, as far as "The Lord's Prayer" was concerned, would prove to be a "mopping up expedition."

Justice Clark delivered the opinion of the eight justices who supported the complaints of Ed Schempp and Madalyn Murray (O' Hair). It read in part:


"The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.

"Even if its purpose is not strictly religious, it is sought to be accomplished through readings, without comment from the Bible. Surely the place of the Bible as an instrument of religion cannot be gainsaid, and the State's recognition of the pervading religious character of the ceremony is evident from the rule's specific permission of the alternative use of the Catholic Douay version as well as the recent amendment permitting nonattendance at the exercises. None of these factors is consistent with the contention that the Bible is here used as an instrument for nonreligious moral inspiration or as a reference for the teaching of secular subjects."

Reaction to the Schempp-Murray decision was relatively mild compared to the indignation in certain religious quarters that greeted the Engel v. Vitale decision a year earlier. One reason for this was offered by Leo Pfeffer when he pointed out in Church, State and Freedom that "in view of the earlier Regents' prayer decision, the Schempp-Murray ruling was, if not inevitable, certainly universally expected and came almost as an anti-climax."

I began my discussion by pointing to the inaccurate and distorted coverage by the media of the 25th anniversary of the Schempp-Murray decision. Ed Schempp's role in all this was not mentioned in any of the newspaper reports that I read. The question of Bible-reading in the public schools was not mentioned, which appeared to be the main thrust of the Schempp and Murray complaints. The entire focus was on Madalyn Murray O'Hair's allegedly driving prayer out of the public schools. In light of all this, I would like to call your attention to what really happened in 1963 by quoting Donald E. Boles from his book The Bible, Religion, and the Public Schools, published by the Iowa State University Press in 1965:


"It may or may not be significant that the Supreme Court chose to focus its primary attention on the Schempp case rather than the Murray case in 1963. The former involved a protest by Unitarians, a group which constituted something of an organized sect.

"The Murray case, of course, concerned an action brought by self-avowed atheists. The potential for public misunderstanding of the court's position relating to religion would probably have been greater if the latter case had formed the nub of the court's opinion."

Thus it should be obvious that had Madalyn Murray O'Hair never existed, devotional Bible-reading exercises would have been declared unconstitutional in the public schools of America. Unfortunately, only one person was recognized by the media on June 17, 1988, and during the days that followed. And that person was recognized for the wrong reason. Ed Schempp should have been allowed to share the glory and the spotlight with Madalyn Murray O'Hair by the American media. This is the stuff of which myth and legend are made. We are witnessing the manufacturing of a modern myth before our eyes-courtesy of a mass media interested more in sensationalism than truth. It's about time that we put an end to the O'Hair legend and let truth upon the stage of history. It's about time that Ed Schempp got the recognition that is his due.


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This address was delivered by Robert E. Nordlander at the eleventh annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. in Madison, Wisconsin on October 8, 1988. It was subsequently published in the November 1988 issue of Freethought Today, an FFRF, Inc. publication. Nordlander is a retired high school teacher and librarian living at 333 Lopas Street, Menasha, WI 54952. His telephone number is 414 725 1864. In light of December, 1995 news stories resulting from the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her son Jon and her granddaughter Robin, this talk is again relevant as the myth exposed in this talk was again repeated as truth with all the authority of a papal bull.



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