New York University Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Navigation Skip to Sub Navigation

New School Prayer Cases Reignite Public Debate Over Religion in the Public Schools, Says NYU Professor

April 17, 2008
N-414, 2007-08

MEDIA ADVISORY

This week, a federal court of appeals upheld the policy of a public school district in New Jersey prohibiting a high school football coach from joining his players in prayer before games. Three weeks ago, two Delaware families settled part of a lawsuit against their school district concerning Christian prayer in their public schools. The cases have brought bitter recriminations among people in each community; in the Delaware case, one family had to move out of the school district to avoid anti-Semitism.

According to New York University journalism professor and author Stephen D. Solomon, the New Jersey ruling was consistent with prior cases saying that school officials participating in devotional activities are violating the First Amendment by appearing to endorse religion.

Solomon is the author of Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer (University of Michigan Press), which tells the story of how 16-year-old Ellery Schempp’s objection to mandatory school prayer and Bible reading led to one of the most controversial court cases of the 20th century. The 1963 decision, Abington School District v. Schempp, still reverberates in the battle over the role of religion in public life. It prompted a conservative backlash that continues to this day-in the skirmishes over devotional exercises in the classroom, the controversy over the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, and the role of faith in Presidential campaign politics.

“Americans have been fighting over religion in education since the first public schools opened their doors,” says Solomon, pointing out that riots in Philadelphia in 1844 over Bible reading in the public schools claimed more than a dozen lives. “Despite rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, the subject of school prayer still provokes passions, misunderstanding, and lawsuits today.”

The coach’s case, which may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, could affect many coaches who pray with their teams before games. Solomon points out that such situations are inherently coercive.

“The football coach is a school official with considerable authority,” says Solomon. “Teenaged players who disagree with a prayer may nevertheless feel that they have to participate in the devotional activity. They may fear that if they excuse themselves from prayer, the coach will hold it against them in decisions involving their opportunity to play.”

Reporters interested in speaking with Solomon should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or james.devitt@nyu.edu.

Solomon teaches First Amendment law and holds a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center. He is co-author of Building 6: The Tragedy at Bridesburg, and his articles have appeared in publications including the New York Times Magazine and Fortune. See Solomon’s website (www.stephendsolomon.com) for information about the Schempp case and about the most recent controversies over religious exercises in the public schools.

This Press Release is in the following Topics:
Graduate School of Arts and Science

Type: Press Release

ellerysprotest

Search News



NYU In the News

Paying It Backward: NYU Alum Funds Scholarships

The Wall Street Journal profiled Trustee Evan Chesler on why he decided to chair the Momentum fund-raising campaign.

A Nobel Prize Party: Cheese, Bubbles, and a Boson

The New Yorker talked to Professor Kyle Cranmer and graduate student Sven Kreiss about NYU’s role in the discovery of the Higgs boson, which resulted in a Nobel prize for the scientists who predicted its existence.

The World as They Knew It

The New York Times reviewed the exhibit at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World on how ancient Greeks and Romans mapped the known and unknown areas of their world.

Elite Institutions: Far More Diverse Than They Were 20 Years Ago

NYU made stronger gains over the last 20 years in increasing diversity than any other major research university, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Program Seeks to Nurture ‘Data Science Culture’
at Universities

The New York Times reported on the multi-million collaboration among NYU and two other universities to harness the potential of Big Data, including an interview with Professor Yann LeCun, director of NYU’s Center for Data Science.

NYU Footer