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

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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.

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.

Schools struck religion from curricula, teachers avoided the topic, and children got the message that religion took place off campus. But then, Professor Deckman explains, people began "to say, 'Look, religion is part of who we are and our culture.' "

Yes, the rulings restricted public school employees – but what about students? Could they say grace in the cafeteria or meet outside class to study the Bible, Quran, or Torah? Could religious organizations offer after-school programs? While teachers couldn't preach, could they address religion academically?

In court case after court case, the answer was a resounding "yes."

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