ACLU History: Defending Separation

September 1, 2010
The ACLU has also continued to help maintain the wall of separation between church and state by challenging mandatory prayer in public schools. In 1962, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) represented Long Island students and parents in challenging the New York State Regents 'nondenominational' school prayer. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court declared in Engel v. Vitale, that '...it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers.'

The fight against school prayer continued into the 1980s as hundreds of constitutional amendments to permit school prayer were introduced across the country, and in Congress, under President Reagan and the influence of the moral majority. The ACLU, along with a wide spectrum of civil liberties and religious groups committed to keeping the government out of the business of religion, collaborated successfully to defeat all of the proposed amendments. In 1985, the religious right attempted a new strategy to mandate prayer in schools by introducing 'moment of silence' laws. Ishmael Jaffree, the father of three children in Mobile, Alabama, successfully challenged the law with the support of the ACLU; in Wallace v. Jaffree, the Supreme Court declared that a mandatory moment of silence in schools is a violation of the Establishment Clause.


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