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  • God, Schools, and Country
  • Ronna Greff Schneider (bio)
Bruce J. Dierenfield , The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America (University Press of Kansas (2007), 240 pp.

Bruce J. Dierenfield's book, The Battle over School Prayer: How Engel v. Vitale Changed America, provides thoughtful insights into the often contentious mixture of religion and public education in the United States in his recounting of the 1962 Supreme Court case of Engel v. Vitale. Engel was the first time that the Court considered the constitutionality of the recitation of prayer in the public school. While the decision certainly did not resolve all the issues involving school prayer and thus would not be the last time that the Court would consider the issue, Engel is the case that initiated the Court's journey towards eliminating school sanctioned prayer in the public schools.

Engel involved a challenge brought by a number of families to the New York state law that authorized school districts to direct the use of a prayer composed by the state Board of Regents in the public schools as well as a challenge to the school district's regulation ordering such recitation at the beginning of the school day. The official practice did not require students to participate in the prayer if they or their parents objected. As Dierenfield observes, the practice was enforced to varying degrees, often depending upon the school and even the classroom teacher involved. Dierenfield puts Engel in historical context in order to truly understand its significance. He examines this context both before and after Engel.

The book reads both like both a history text and a novel, and therein lies both its uniqueness and strength. Professor Dierenfield's meticulous research and narrative style makes this book appealing to lawyers and non-lawyers alike. He carefully condenses large areas of jurisprudential debate in order to pinpoint their relevance and importance to the specific constitutional issues surrounding the role of religion in public education. He provides his reader with an understanding not only about the law at issue, but about the people whose personalities and circumstances will largely affect the contours of that law.

Professor Dierenfield begins his story with an historical recounting of the development of the colonists' as well as founding fathers' concepts of religious liberty and disestablishment and their relationship to the sporadic use of religion in public education. His historical background is most interesting with regard to the less familiar conflicts that occurred in the nineteenth century, particularly with regard to the period before the Civil War. Through a series of statistics and short vignettes, Dierenfield observes that "[s]tate education officials in the antebellum period understood that the cost of sectarianism in public education was too high. Public schools [End Page 797] would never be universally accepted as long as religious minorities were made to feel unwelcome."1

Professor Dierenfield thoroughly traces the reactions of various religious groups to the issue of religion in the public schools throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Much of the conflict over Bible reading in the public schools resulted from the tension between Protestants and Catholics. In contrast, Dierenfield notes that

for a long time, German Jews stayed out of the line of fire because of their strong belief in public education as the vehicle for assimilation and opportunity. Even when compromised, Jews were reluctant to draw attention to themselves because of their small numbers until the late nineteenth century and because they did not want to be the Protestants' next target.2

When Catholics began to withdraw from Protestant dominated public schools to form their own parochial schools, struggles over the use of public funds for such schools also arose.

Early religious based conflicts in the schools included such events as the 1830's dispute in New York City over the presence of the King James Bible and the controversy over funding for separate Catholic schools; the violent and deadly Bible war of 1844 in Philadelphia over which version of the Bible would be read by the students in public schools; the violent protests in Ellsworth, Maine over the right of Catholic students who attended public schools to refrain from reading the Protestant...


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pp. 797-807
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