A landmark case on public school prayer involved the school district in Baltimore, Maryland, and resulted in the banning of the Lord’s Prayer and Bible readings in public schools throughout the nation following a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The case shot atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair into prominence, and also tagged her with the nickname, “the most hated woman in America,” a phrase she herself coined, according to Beliefnet
. Murray, her last name at the time, had protested a 1905 Baltimore school board requirement of starting each school day with the Lord’s Prayer and a Bible reading. She also stirred up attention through the media with her protests and by keeping her son out of school for 18 days, according to The Free Dictionary.
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Murray, an attorney, filed a lawsuit stating that compulsory religious education in public schools violated the First Amendment and the separation of church and state. She lost in the state courts and on appeal, but the issue was combined with another similar case in Pennsylvania when it reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was known as Abington School District v. Schempp.
A year earlier in 1962, the nation’s high court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that a state-authorized prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. Congress had been considering proposals to amend the Constitution after that decision.
In the Abington School District v. Schempp case, lawyers for the defendants argued that the prayer and Bible reading were ways to avoid an official state religion. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the prayer and reading violated the establishment clause in the First Amendment, which prevented government-sponsored religion or government favoring one religion over another.
The decision affected public schools throughout the country in abandoning prayers in the classroom. The schools would replace the prayers with a brief moment of silence, which has also been challenged in courts when deemed to promote religion.
The religious connection with public school institutions continues to result in lawsuits on various levels. In 2014, the American Center for Law and Justice filed a lawsuit
against the Community College of Baltimore County on behalf of Maryland resident Brandon Jenkins, who was allegedly denied admission to the college’s radiation therapy program because of his religious beliefs.
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Jenkins had told school officials during the interview process about the importance of God in his life. After he was denied admission, he was reportedly told that religion played a major part in his life and that “this field is not the place for religion,” according to the ACLJ.
A Maryland district court ruled in favor of proceeding with the case in March 2015. The court stated that a preference for religious or non-religious candidates would “be an unconstitutional preference” if true.
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