It was 11:30 a.m. by the bronze clock which hangs over the Supreme Court bench. Justice Tom C. Clark had been drawling over a zig-zag sewing machine patent when, with scarcely a pause, he shifted to cases 119 and 142. Clark talked for another 25 minutes. His voice trailed off as he finally announced the court’s decision against a 150-year-old American tradition of prayer and Bible reading in the public schoolroom. The decision was regarded in some quarters as imposing a restriction upon the religious practices of more Americans than any prior government action.

The court’s decision on June 17 was 8 to 1, with Justice Potter Stewart, an Episcopalian, voicing the lone dissent, just as he did in 1962 when the court struck down the 22-word interfaith prayer approved by the New York Board of Regents for use in the public schools of that state.

The court’s opinion in the 1962 case stressed that the Regents’ prayer was governmentally composed. Curiously, in the 1963 decision, one of the justices forsakes that line, and views recitation of prayers as unconstitutional irrespective of whether or not they are governmentally composed.

While banning required Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer even as it had earlier disallowed required non-sectarian prayer, the court nonetheless put no roadblock in the way of the teaching of religion as a cultural and historical influence or in the way of objective study of the Bible as part of the instructional program. Thus it made a clear distinction between the compulsory corporate practice of religion and the objective teaching of religion (see CHRISTIANITY TODAY editorial, March 1, 1963 issue, “Is the Supreme Court on Trial?”).

Another significant aspect of the latest ruling is that the justices differ ...

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