The New York school system had adopted a prayer to be said before the start of each day’s classes. This prayer was to help promote good moral character of the students, spiritual training and help combat juvenile delinquency. The regents wrote a prayer for the schools which had to be non-sectarian or denominational. It was so bland that it became known to some religious leaders as the “to whom it may concern prayer.” Here is the Regents prayer.
Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.
Justice Hugo Black wrote the following for the majority, “It is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers. . . the Regent’s prayer are inconsistent both with the purposes of the Establishment Clause and the Establishment Clause itself.”
With standard jurisprudence the Court cites previous cases in making its rulings; however, not one previous case was cited in this ruling. Why was no other case cited? Because, there were none which would support its decision. For 170 years following the ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, no Court had ever struck down any prayer, in any form, in any location. While the Court invoked no judicial precedent to sustain its decision, it did employ some strategic psychological rhetoric. Recall the Court’s comment that:
. . . these principles were so universally recognized . .
These principles were not recognized by most Americans, and this decision caused an uproar, and Congressional hearings! Even though the Founding fathers plainly stated that religion and morality were to be part of our society and government, the Court was not particularly interested in the Founders’ views on this subject; in fact, it openly acknowledged its contempt for America’s heritage when it remarked:
[T]hat [New York] prayer seems relatively insignificant when compared to the governmental encroachments upon religion which were commonplace 200 years ago.
Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina said, “I should like to ask whether we would be far wrong in saying that in this decision the Supreme Court has held that God is unconstitutional and for that reason the public school must be segregated against Him?”
John Bennett, dean of Union Theological Seminary wrote the following: “If the Court in the name of religious liberty tries to keep a lid on religious expression and teaching both in the public schools and also in connection with experiments that involve cooperation with public schools, it will drive all religious communities to the establishment of parochial schools, much against the will of many, and to the great detriment of public schools and probably of the quality of education.” At the time there were just a handful of Protestant Schools in the country, today they number in the thousands.