Heated and sometimes violent conflicts over school prayer have occurred in recent years. These disputes reveal the divisiveness that can result when public schools become involved in religious exercises.

For example, in Oklahoma two women who were church members complained about prayers in their children’s junior high school.  Both received death threats, and one was physically assaulted by a proponent of school prayer. The other received threats that her home would be burned down. The mobile home where she and her family lived was later burned to the ground.

Moreover, after two Louisiana high school students refused to participate in Christian prayers, they were harassed and ostracized by other students. Their classmates accused them of being “Satanists” and “devil worshipers.”

In Robert Boston’s book Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State, such controversies are shown to have a long and sad history in the U.S.

Boston reports that Roman Catholics began to object when Protestant prayers and Bible reading became common in public schools during the nineteenth century. The result was a series of conflicts known as “The Bible Wars.”

Some of the worst problems occurred in New York City, where violence broke out after the superintendent of schools allowed Catholic children to be removed from daily religious exercises. The local bishop felt compelled to post armed guards in front of Catholic churches to protect against vandals and other troublemakers.

A three-day riot erupted in Philadelphia after the city’s board of education voted to permit Catholic children to be excused from mandatory religion classes. Thirteen people were killed, and Catholic churches and the homes of Catholic parents were burned.

A Catholic priest in Maine was tarred and feathered after he advised his parishioners to file a lawsuit against mandatory Protestant worship in public schools. Strife also occurred in Cincinnati after Catholics successfully sued to remove their children from religious exercises in public schools.

These types of problems helped lead to the establishment of the parochial school system. Many Catholics became fed up with the blatant Protestantism in public schools.

Allowing state-sponsored religious exercises in public schools would likely produce even worse conflicts and fragmentation today. The U.S. has a much higher degree of religious pluralism than existed in the nineteenth century. As a result, there are far more minority religions that could be offended by governmental endorsement of a particular religious view.

The founders of the U.S. separated church and state because European and American history shows that a union of the two leads to religious wars and persecution. More recent history reveals that similar problems occur when public schools become involved with religion. For this reason, public schools must remain neutral on religion.

As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan wrote, state-sponsored religious activities in public schools “threaten in our day those substantive evils the fear of which called forth the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” Among the evils are religious conflicts, divisiveness, intolerance, and violence.

In arguing for state-sanctioned religious practices in public schools, the Religious Right implies that prayer and Bible reading occurred in all public schools before the 1962 and 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decisions on those subjects. But Boston shows that’s not true. A 1960 survey by Americans United for Separation of Church and State found only 5 states having laws requiring daily Bible reading and 25 with laws allowing “optional” Bible reading.

The survey also showed that courts in 11 states had declared the practice unconstitutional, and the remaining states had no laws on the books one way or the other. The trend was arguably in favor of a state-by-state phase out of religious practices in public schools. In fact, an estimated 75% of public schools had already eliminated state-sponsored prayer before 1962.

One of the earliest cases was Ring v. Board of Education, which was decided by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1910. The court struck down a variety of religious exercises in public schools, including prayer, Bible reading, and daily hymns. As was true in many of these early controversies, the complainants were Catholic parents.

Although an objecting student could, in theory, be excused from participating, the religious practices were still held unconstitutional. The court explained: “The exclusion of a pupil from this part of the school exercises in which the rest of the school joins, separates him from his fellows, puts him in a class by himself, deprives him of his equality with the other pupils, subjects him to a religious stigma and places him at a disadvantage in the school. . . .”

Also contrary to what some supporters of school prayer claim, it would be impossible for government to compose a meaningful “nonsectarian” prayer acceptable to all. There are simply too many inconsistent religious views held by believers, in addition to the opposing views of nonbelievers. As one wag said, a truly nonsectarian prayer would have to begin, “To Whom it may concern, if there is a Whom . . .”

Rather than reinstating sectarian practices that would offend and alienate members of minority religions, public schools should promote ethical values that are broadly shared by people of all religions and by the nonreligious. This would help bring Americans of various religions and philosophies together instead of tearing them apart over religious differences.