MYTH 8: Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an atheist, single-handedly removed God, the Bible and pray
MYTH 8: Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an atheist, single-handedly removed
God, the Bible and prayer from public schools in 1962.
Atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair played no role in the
Supreme Court's school prayer decision of 1962.
In the Engel v. Vitale case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-
1 against New York's "Regents' prayer," a "non-denominational"
prayer state education officials had composed for public
schoolchildren to recite.
The government-sponsored religious devotion was challenged in
court by a group of parents from New Hyde Parkūsome atheists, some
believers. O'Hair was not involved in the case at all.
One year later, a case originated by a Philadelphia-area man
named Ed Schempp challenging mandatory Bible reading in
Pennsylvania schools reached the Supreme Court. At the same time,
Murray O'Hair was challenging a similar practice as well as the
recitation of the Lord's Prayer in Maryland public schools. The
Supreme Court consolidated the cases and in 1963 ruled 8-1 that
devotional Bible reading or other government-sponsored religious
activities in public schools are unconstitutional.
The Engel and Schempp cases were a result of the changing
religious landscape of the United States. As religious minorities
grew more confident of their rightful place in American society,
they came to resent the de facto Protestant flavor in many public
schools. Litigation was inevitable. The high court's rulings
striking down mandatory prayer and devotional Bible reading in
public schools would have occurred if O'Hair had never been born.
The controversial Texas atheist serves as a convenient villain for
Religious Right propagandists who hate religious liberty and
It is also important to remember that neither of these rulings
removed prayer or Bible reading from public schools. Truly
voluntary religious exercises in public schools have never been
held illegal. The rulings of the early '60s simply prevented the
government, through the public schools, from intervening in
sensitive religious matters. Voluntary student-initiated Bible
study and prayer clubs were reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in
1990, when the justices upheld the Equal Access Act, a federal law
that permits students to form religion clubs at public high schools
under certain conditions.
The rulings from the 1960s are also not hostile toward
religion, as the justices took pains to point out. In the Abington
decision, Justice Tom Clark wrote for the court majority, "[I]t
might well be said that one's education is not complete without a
study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its
relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may
be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and
historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such
study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as
part of a secular program of education, may not be effected
consistently with the First Amendment."
Provided by Americans United for Separation of Church and State,
8120 Fenton Street, Silver Spring MD 20910; 301-589-3707.
Americans United, 1816 Jefferson Place, Washington, DC 20036-2505;
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank