Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s” and cohosts the podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
In Texas, legislators have been weighing a raft of new bills to bring more Christianity into the classroom: bills mandating schools to post the Ten Commandments, to set aside prayer time during the school day, to allow public employees to “engage in religious prayer and speech.”
All are aimed at advancing a particular vision of religious liberty: one in which the government not only must allow for the free practice of religion, but has a role to play in promoting the Christian faith.
These legislative efforts may seem tame in comparison to other state laws that now endanger the lives of residents – from restrictions on abortion and reproductive care to easier access to firearms. But the push for state promotion of Christianity is a key piece of these other fights. (Though proponents of mandatory prayer and the Ten Commandments argue they are part of the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage, the version of prayers and commandments are drawn from Protestant Christianity.)
Texas’s Senate Bill 1515, which would have required display of the Ten Commandments in every classroom, failed to advance this week when Democrats ran out the clock during the Texas legislature’s famously short sessions, but the momentum and motivation behind it – and other efforts like it – continues.
For the last 50 years, efforts to mandate prayer in government institutions and the public promotion of the Ten Commandments have been tied to efforts to demonize feminism, sexuality and civil rights.
With prayer out of the public schools, the argument goes, all manner of social problems have thrived. Restore mandatory prayer, post the Ten Commandments and suddenly there will be no need for abortion or school integration or homosexuality, this line of argument goes. As such, bills promoting Christianity are a key component of the attacks on everything from abortion to trans health care to the teaching of Black history.
Within conservative lore, one of the original sins of modern liberalism can be found in Engel v. Vitale, the 1962 Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional the promotion of prayer in public schools. In the case before the Court, the New York Board of Regents had composed a short prayer to “Almighty God” that would be recited at the state’s public schools (though students could opt out if they did not wish to participate).
The Court determined, in a 6-1 ruling, that even though the prayer was voluntary, its promotion by the school violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which barred the government from establishing a religion. When the Court ruled the following year that state-sponsored Bible readings and prayers were unconstitutional, the right declared a war on Christians.
For many conservatives, the ruling to eliminate prayer from public schools was a pivotal moment in what they see as a war on Christianity, one that set the country on the path of moral decadence and decay. Given that, they decided the ruling was illegitimate.
In wide swaths of the country, particularly in the American South, school administrators and state legislators simply ignored the decision.] “I don’t care what they say in Washington,” George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama said in 1963, “we are going to keep right on praying and reading the Bible in the public schools of Alabama.” And they did. In 1997, the New York Times reported that in parts of Alabama, “prayer has remained as common as pop quizzes in many schools.”
Others saw it as a sign that Congress needed to wrest power back from the Court. In 1964, the Republican platform contained a call for a school prayer amendment, a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in school that, along with an amendment outlawing abortion, would remain a leading goal for conservatives throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
But for some on the far right, the decision was a reason the entire Supreme Court needed to be brought to heel. Daniel A. Manion, a lawyer and son of right-wing radio host Clarence Manion, appeared on his father’s show in 1971 to explain why the entire Court needed to be rethought after Engel v. Vitale. Pointing out that the Court had stripped prayer from schools, and shortly after eased restrictions on pornography, Manion asked his father, “Why is it supreme? Why are they allowed to do this?” When Clarence Manion suggested that Congress restrict the Court’s jurisdiction, a relieved Daniel Manion answered, “I’m glad there is a way we can curtail the Supreme Court.”
The younger Manion didn’t get his wish. But a decade later, as a member of the Indiana state legislature, he continued his crusade against the Court. After the Court ruled that legislators could not mandate that schools post the Ten Commandments, Manion co-sponsored a bill that allowed Indiana schools to display them.
All this came to light in 1986, when Ronald Reagan nominated Manion to the federal bench. Democrats mounted significant opposition to the nomination, noting that Manion had no real record of accomplishments. But they were not able to stop his confirmation, and for the next 20 years, Manion became part of the rightward swing of the federal judiciary, deciding in favor of moments of silence and public displays of the Ten Commandments.
Manion’s path from calling from judicial restraint to pushing for the promotion of Christianity mirrors the larger judicial shift. What the right got was not a restrained Supreme Court but one packed with right-wing Justices intent on erasing the line between Christianity and the government. In 2022, those Justices ruled that school employees could lead group prayer with students, and weakened the barriers to mandatory prayer in schools.
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In the 1960s, after Engel v. Vitale was decided, opponents quickly warned that worse was yet to come. In the years that followed, they blamed the decision for rising crime rates, sexual liberation, abortion rights and much more. As Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in his 2002 book “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” one Maine resident summarized the argument neatly, “The lack of prayers and bible readings in the public schools… is the major factor for the rising rate of juvenile delinquency, crime and violence, demonstrations, racial riots and disrespect for law and order and common decency.”
That critique remains. A co-sponsor of the recent Texas bills, State Sen. Mayes Middleton, argued, “When prayer was taken out of schools, things went downhill — discipline, mental health. It’s something I heard a lot on porches when I was campaigning. It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time.”
It’s something many people on the right have been thinking about for decades. While experts cite the positive role of spiritual life in mental health, politicians have shown scant if any evidence that prayer (or the Ten Commandments) in school will make kids healthier, safer or better behaved. And while these Texas bills may not become law this year, the proliferation of bills mandating Christianity suggest that this broader social project remains a priority for Republicans — a critical component of the new infrastructure of restrictions rooted in a belief that the United States is a conservative Christian nation, an identity that the law should safeguard at every turn, regardless of what rights get dismantled in the process.