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School prayer: 50 years after the ban, God and faith more present than ever

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"If the public school is to prepare people to participate in a democracy," says Mike Waggoner, editor of Religion & Education, "students are going to require an understanding of Hindus, Muslims, atheists, various forms of Christians, and so forth."

Mr. Haynes concurs, noting, "It is on public school campuses that young people learn to live with and address differences." But, he warns, if religion is going to come on campus, it has to enter "through the First Amendment door."

This means that public schools and their staffs cannot violate the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution by fostering religious beliefs. But neither can they stifle students' constitutionally protected freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.

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Rulings that panicked school boards

So what exactly happened 50 years ago?

In two landmark decisions – Engel v. Vitale on June 25, 1962, and Abington School District v. Schempp on June 17, 1963 – the Supreme Court declared school-sponsored prayer and Bible readings unconstitutional. The rulings provoked unprecedented controversy, says Melissa Deckman, affiliated scholar with the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C. "School boards got so paranoid about dealing with religion that they just said, 'We shouldn't do any of that at all,' " she says.

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