School Prayer. Separation of Church and State. Religious freedom. Worshiping a God of your understanding or no God of your understanding. All those phrases were tossed into a political stew and brought to a boil in June 1962 when the Supreme Court heard the first of what were to be many cases regarding to controversy of prayer in the classroom.
We're led to believe the concept of praying in the classroom was something around since the beginning of our country, but that's not the case. The Engel vs. Vitale case before the Supreme Court was about a piece of legislation passed in 1951 by a New York State School board, inserting a prayer to be given before class. Much as the origins of the "Under God" phrase in our pledge of allegiance, it was something that came about as the direct result of the Cold War in the late 1940's and early 1950's and not before.
But it was assumed this was always the case, and when a suit was filed questioning its legality, it set off a firestorm throughout the country that only a ruling from the Supreme Court could settle in a 6-1 decision. Opinions were sharply divided, with an inordinate number of pundits and "experts" weighing in. Even legal scholars were brought in to assess the significance of the case.
Eugene V. Rostow (Dean of Yale University Law School): “After all, the Pilgrims and many other people came to this country in order to escape religion imposed upon them or pressed upon them by the State. The memory of their principles has been revived for us in recent years by the political activity of religious groups in many areas of our national life, in education and censorship and elsewhere. In that perspective, the court’s action in the Engle case is a call for wise forbearance on our part. A call to all of us to avoid a controversy which is so deep in our constitutional tradition and which has added nothing but misery, both to ancient and to modern history. The case came to the Supreme Court as cases normally do. Ever since the War there has been a bubbling up around the country, of issues concerning religion in the public schools. Some of those controversies have come into the lower courts, both state and federal. They’ve been pressed. The Supreme Court waited, as it normally, to see whether the controversy was really acute enough to require its intervention.”
Needless to say, it set into motion a number of similar cases throughout the 1960s (and beyond) where the question of school prayer was argued.
But Engel vs. Vitale was the first one to get the ball rolling.