Prayer and Bible Reading
A Statement of the Lutheran Church in America, 1964
Adopted by the Second Biennial Convention, Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, July 2-9, 1964.
In June, 1963, the Executive Council of the Lutheran Church in
America adopted a brief statement on prayer and Bible reading in
the public schools in the light of decisions on those matters by
the United States Supreme Court (Engel and Schempp cases, 370 U.S.
421 and 374 U.S. 203).
The Biennial Convention of the LCA in July, 1964, received an
interpretive memorandum attached by the Executive Council to the
prior statement. The significance of the memorandum was in its
fuller analysis of the Court s decisions and in the attention it
gave to related proposals to amend the Constitution of the United
The convention ratified the statement of the Executive Council
(in the words of the pertinent resolution) "as amplified and
interpreted by" the memorandum. The statement of the Executive
Council (I) "as amplified and interpreted by" the memorandum (II)
constitutes the official position of the Lutheran Church in America
on prayer and Bible reading in the public schools and the question
of constitutional amendment.
I. STATEMENT BY THE EXECUTIVE COUNCIL, 1963
We do not believe that much has been lost in terms of the
specific points covered by the recent decisions of the United
States Supreme Court in the school prayer and Bible reading cases.
If the Lord's Prayer were to be recited in schoolrooms only for the
sake of the moral and ethical atmosphere it creates, it would be
worth nothing to the practicing Christian. The Lord's Prayer is the
supreme act of adoration and petition or it is debased. Reading the
Bible in the public schools without comment, too, has been of
dubious value as either an educational or religious experience. The
more we attempt as Christians or Americans to insist on common
denominator religious exercise or instruction in public schools,
the greater risk we run of diluting our faith and contributing to a
vague religiosity which identifies religion with patriotism and
becomes a national folk religion.
At the same time, in candor, these decisions must be seen as a
watershed. They open an era in which Christianity is kept separate
from the state in a way thatwas foreign and would have been
repugnant to the minds of our ancestors at the time when the
Constitution was written and ever since. They signalize the fact
that the United States of America, like many other nations, is past
the place where underlying Christian culture and beliefs are
assumed in its life.
This event intensifies the task of the church. It heightens the
need of the church for strength to stand alone, lofty and unshaken,
in American society. It calls for greater depth of conviction in
all Christian men and women.
II. INTERPRETIVE MEMORANDUM, 1964
The United States Supreme Court has declared it unconstitutional
for states to require religious exercises such as prayer recitation
and the reading of the Bible without comment in the public schools.
(Engel and Schempp cases, 370 U.S. 421 and 374 U.S. 203.) It is
natural that the Court's decisions have created controversy and
have aroused misgivings and questions on the part of those who have
both an interest in the public schools and a concern for the
religious and moral nurture of our children. To some it has seemed
that the Federal Constitution should be expressly amended to
nullify these decisions and otherwise restrict the application of
the religion clauses of the First Amendment.
Criticism of the Court's rulings has been directed to the
following points: that prayer exercises and Bible reading in the
public schools have the sanction of historical usage, that to call
these practices a form of religious establishment is to carry
constitutional interpretation to an unwarranted extreme, that to
invalidate these practices at the request of a minority is to deny
majority rights, and that exclusion of such religious practices has
the effect of conferring a constitutional blessing upon secularism
as an official philosophy.
The Church is properly concerned about these questions. The
validity, the meaning and the effect of the Court's decisions touch
on matters of vital interest to Christians, both in terms of their
responsibility under God for the good of the public order and their
special calling in Christ for the sake of the Gospel.
It does not appear, however, that the church need be alarmed
over the results reached by the Court in these cases. Persons of
good will may have differences of opinion on the correctness or
desirability of these decisions. At the same time believers and
nonbelievers alike may share the view that in the end these
decisions may have a wholesome effect in clarifying the role of the
public school with respect to religious matters.
The Executive Council statement of June 1963 recognizes that
from a religious point of view not much is lost as a result of the
decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court in the school prayer and Bible
reading cases. Recitation of prayers when prescribed by public
authority easily becomes a formal, mechanical exercise that neither
reflects nor contributes to genuine religious piety and reverence.
Bible reading without comment may take on the form of a ritualistic
exercise that contributes little to a genuine educational program
or to understanding of the Bible.
Moreover, both the Lord's Prayer and the Bible belong to a
particular religious tradition, and their use in religious
exercises in the public schools does result in a religious
preference and invites the risk of sectarian divisiveness in the
community. In turn, any devotional use of the Bible designed to
avoid or minimize the sectarian aspect results in a distorted
conception of the Bible and a dilution of its religious
Furthermore, any religious exercise designed to minimize the
sectarian element, whether it be a nonsectarian prayer or Bible
readings that ignore religious teachings, serves to promote a vague
or a syncretistic religion that conveys none of the substance, the
depth, and cutting edge of the historic Christian witness.
The nature of our contemporary pluralistic and democratic
society requires a re-evaluation of practices which though
sanctioned by historical usage had their origin at a time when the
Protestant influence was dominant in the shaping of many public
practices including the public school program. A due regard for all
religious faiths and also for nonbelievers and nonconformists of
all kinds makes it imperative that the public schools abstain from
practices that run the risk of intrusion of sectarian elements and
divisiveness. The public school serves a unique and valued place in
helping to build a civic unity despite the diversities of our
It should also be noted that when the state deeply involves
itself in religious practices in the public schools, it is thereby
not only appropriating a function properly served by the church and
the family but subjecting the freedom of believers and unbelievers
alike to the restraint that accompanies the use of governmental
power and public facilities in the promotion of religious ends.
This consideration is particularly relevant in the case of
religious exercises in the public schools. Children are required to
be in school by compulsion of public law, the religious exercises
are prescribed by public authority, public school facilities are
used, and the teacher-the symbol of authority in the
classroom-supervises the exercises. These factors combine to
operate with indirect coercive force on young and impressionable
children to induce them to take part in these exercises, despite a
freedom to be excused from participation. Even persons with a
genuine regard for prayer and the Bible may object to having their
children engage in these exercises when they are supported by the
compulsion of law.
Having said this, however, does not foreclose the legitimacy of
having any reservations about the Supreme Court's decisions. The
legal question whether the establishment clause of the First
Amendment is properly interpreted to apply to religious practices
in the public schools is a matter on which scholars disagree. It is
quite valid to ask whether the Fourteenth Amendment should be
used to make the First Amendment apply to every school community
in the United States, regardless of the religious character of the
A more serious question, moreover, goes to the concept of
neutrality respecting religious matters, which played a central
part in the Court's decision handed down in 1963. Clearly public
school programs must be directed to secular purposes, and yet the
schools cannot be absolutely neutral in regard to religious
matters. Any education premised on indifference to the religious
factors in history, in American life and in the life of the
individual, is an inadequate education. Furthermore, the vacuum
introduced by the exclusion of religion opens the door to the cult
of secularism. The Constitution prohibits the establishment of all
kinds of religion-whether theistic or secular in character.
Recognizing these considerations, the Court has wisely stated
that schools may properly present programs for the objective study
of the Bible and of religion. How successfully this can be done,
without the intrusion of sectarian elements, remains to be seen.
This points up the challenge to the churches and to the public
schools to give serious attention to ways of studying the Bible and
religion that will do justice to the religious factor and at the
same time serve the larger neutrality which an even-handed
interpretation of the Constitution requires. The LCA Commission on
Church and State Relations in a Pluralistic Society is currently
exploring this question and will report its conclusions to the
Church in due time.
Christians should realize, however, that not too much may be
expected of the public schools in dealing with religious matters.
The schools must be careful to abstain from practices and teaching
programs that involve commitment to ultimate truth or values. On
the other hand, it should be possible for the public schools to
teach respect for the spiritual and moral values that reflect the
community consensus and which for most citizens have their roots in
the Christian, and in the antecedent Hebrew tradition.
Our democratic society rests on certain moral assumptions. But
even here the public schools must be careful. In teaching respect
for the ethics of a democratic society, they cannot commit
themselves to either a theistic or a humanistic philosophy
respecting the sources and motivation for ethical conduct. The
nurture of an informed, vital and relevant religious faith remains
the responsibility of parents and the churches.
In view of these considerations it does not seem that anything
of importance is to be gained through an amendment to the
Constitution that would sanction prayer and Bible reading in the
public schools. The Supreme Court has not held that there can be no
prayers in public schools. Nothing in the Court's decisions
precludes school authorities from designating a period of silence
for prayer and meditation or even for devotional reading of the
Bible or any other book during this period. Opportunity for
voluntary participation in prayers of the student's own choice is
not governed by these decisions which dealt only with situations
where school authorities were directly involved in prescribing the
kind of prayer and in giving direction to it. Moreover, the Court's
recognition that the objective study of religion and the Bible in
the public schools is consistent with the First Amendment gives
promise of a constructive approach to neutralizing secularistic
tendencies in public education.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court has not outlawed reference to God
in public documents, proceedings or ceremonies. No constitutional
amendment is necessary to assure the freedom of the federal and
state governments to give appropriate expression to the religious
factor in our history and in the lives of our people.
On the other hand, there is disadvantage in using the amendment
process to deal with the present issue and there is risk in the
results that would be achieved by it. The proposed amendments would
represent only a piecemeal way of dealing with religious practices
in public schools and in public life. It would be a use of the
amendment process not to state general and fundamental principles
but to sanction certain specific and detailed practices. This is,
to say the least, a questionable use of the amendment process.
Moreover, such an amendment would raise new problems of
interpretation and could lead to unintended and unsuspected results
in areas vitally touching on religious liberty. Finally, and this
is most important, the proposed amendments in their substance would
give constitutional sanction to distinctively sectarian practices
in the public schools with all the risks involved of impinging upon
freedom of conscience and belief and creating religious
divisiveness in the community.
The Constitution should not be amended except to achieve large
and important public needs and purposes consistent with the basic
nature of our constitutional system. The current proposals for
constitutional amendment do not meet these standards. Parents,
churches and school authorities would be better advised to direct
their efforts to programs for study of religion and the Bible in
the public schools and to the formulation of types of programs
which coordinate the secular educational programs of the public
schools with programs of a strictly religious nature conducted by
the churches themselves, rather than to seek constitutional
sanctions for devotional exercises in public schools that have at
most a minimal religious value, which invite the intrusion of
sectarian influences into the public school system, risk the
violation of the rights of religious freedom and are a potential
source of conflict in the community.