The Battle over School Prayer
How Engel v. Vitale Changed America
Bruce J. Dierenfield
Winner: Langum Prize
Winner: Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award
“An exceptionally fine study of religion’s entanglement in the public schools—especially the role played by organized school prayer. . . . Highly recommended.”
“Dierenfield makes an important non-theoretical contribution. Those of us who teach constitutional law usually focus on judicial reasoning and interpretation, on doctrine and principle, as relatively abstract and bloodless examples of legal argument. Dierenfield shows how the politics and constitutional issue of school prayer appear in the lives of real, flesh-and-blood human beings. He documents the ways the principals in Engel v. Vitale paid a high personal and social price for their litigation.”
—Politics and ReligionSee all reviews...
“Dierenfield provides a personal account of the five families whose lawsuit resulted in one of the Court's most controversial decisions and the demise of school prayer in America. . . . Dierenfield also places Engel in historical context, tracing the debate over religion in the schools from the colonial period to our own time. One lesson that emerges from his retelling is that the targets of religious oppression in one age are often the perpetrators in another.”
—Political Science Quarterly
“Dierenfield tells the full story of the case and does an especially good job of invoking the times that spawned it. . . . His most impressive accomplishment is that he took the time to track down and interview several of the parties who were involved in the case. . . . Advocates of church-state separation will find much of value in this book.”
—Church and State
“A fine narrative of the actors and the actions that led to a landmark case. . . . Dierenfield has shown . . . how the case ‘changed America’—how school districts have changed in the intervening years, how the Protestant domination of the American ethos has waned, and how, in spite of conservative fears, Engel did not dry up religious sentiment.”
—Law and Politics Book Review
“Makes history come alive. . . . A readable book well grounded in legal, political, and cultural history. . . . This splendid book should be required reading for all law students, since it not only shows the human context in which momentous legal decisions are decided, but refutes the poisonous notion that a distant, secularist elite conspired to weaken religious liberty in the United States.”
—Voice of Reason
“The most readable, entertaining, refreshing, enlightening account of the Engel case yet written.”
—Derek H. Davis, author of Original Intent: Chief Justice Rehnquist and the Course of American Church/State Relations
“Never loses sight of the crucial fact that the controversy over religion in public schools belongs not to the captains and the kings but to ordinary people whose convictions—and passions—drive them to do what they believe they must. ”
—Joan DelFattore, author of The Fourth R: Conflicts Over Religion in Americas Public Schools
“One of the finest studies about Engel and its consequences.”
—Robert F. Drinan, S.J., author of Can God and Caesar Coexist?See fewer reviews...
It has become known to many as the moment when the U.S. Supreme Court kicked God out of the public schools, supposedly paving the way for a decline in educational quality and a dramatic rise in delinquency and immorality. The 6-to-1 decision in Engel v. Vitale (1962) not only sparked outrage among a great many religious Americans, it also rallied those who cried out against what they perceived as a dangerously activist Court.
Bruce Dierenfield has written a concise and readable guide to the first—and still most important—case that addressed the constitutionality of prayer in public schools. The 22-word recitation in a Long Island school that was challenged in Engel v. Vitale was hardly denominational—not even overtly Christian—but a handful of parents saw it as a violation of the First Amendment's proscription again the establishment of religion. The case forced the Supreme Court to take a stand on Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state. When it did so, the Court declared that by endorsing the prayer recitation—no matter how brief, non-denominational, or voluntary—the Long Island school board had unconstitutionally approved the establishment of religion in school.
Writing with impeccable fairness and sensitivity, Dierenfield sets his account of the Engel decision in the larger historical and political context, citing battles over a wide range of religious activities in public schools throughout American history. He takes readers behind the scenes at school board meetings and Court deliberations to show real people wrestling with deeply personal issues. Through interviews with many of the participants, he also reveals the large price paid by the plaintiffs and their children, who were frequently harassed both during and after the trial.
For a long time, opponents of the decision have loudly claimed that it was based on a distorted reading of the First Amendment and deprived Americans of their right to practice religion. Dierenfield shows that the polarizing effect of Engel—a decision every bit as controversial as Roe v. Wade—has reverberated through the subsequent decades and gained intensity with the rise of the religious right. His book helps readers understand why, even in the face of this landmark decision, Americans remain divided on how divided church and state should be.