JONATHAN ENGEL: In the upper-left hand corner there, that’s my brother Mike. And that’s Dan Roth. It just brings me back to these days.

NARRATION: In 1958, Jonathan Engel’s family was living on a quiet tree-lined block in Roslyn Heights, New York, near where his brother attended public school. 

JONATHAN ENGEL: My brother came home from school – What’d you do today? This and that, and we started the day with the prayer, and the teacher taught us how to pray. My father said – What do you mean, the teacher taught? The teacher said you put your hands together and you look up toward heaven or the ceiling or whatever, and that’s how you pray.  And my father’s reaction to that is – We, meaning Jewish people, don’t pray like that. 

NARRATION: Jonathan Engel’s parents weren’t the only ones offended by the daily prayer which was a new requirement in the Herricks school district. So were their next-door neighbors, the Roths, whose son Daniel was 13 years old.

DANIEL ROTH: I remember saying, why do I have to say this stupid prayer every morning?  Why, why is that? I don’t get it. I don’t want to say it.

JONATHAN ENGEL: Larry Roth was the father. Larry really didn’t want his kids saying prayers in school. And my father didn’t either. At first they went to the school district to ask them – Listen, this isn’t right, you know, people feel uncomfortable. But the school district said no, we’re doing this.

NARRATION: So, with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, they decided to sue. They argued that mandating prayer, which had long been common – if controversial – violated the First Amendment prohibition of state-sponsored religious activity in public schools. Three other families joined.

JONATHAN ENGEL: At first there wasn’t a lot of backlash going on because we kept losing. But then they asked the Supreme Court of the United States, please hear this case because it’s important, because it involves the Constitution.

NEWS REEL: The Supreme Court decision that a New York school prayer violates Constitutional separation of church and state.

JONATHAN ENGEL: And when the decision came out, I mean, it was front page, biggest headline in The New York Times. And so, whoa!  That was like, all of a sudden people were jolted by it. Holy mackerel! They decided this?

NARRATION: In Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court set an important precedent, saying that even non-mandatory school prayer was coercive and violated the Constitution.

DANIEL ROTH: That was kind of a celebratory moment. And then, you know, it changed. 

FRANK J. BECKER (REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN): I would say it was the most tragic decision in the history of the United States.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK (PROFESSOR OF LAW EMERITUS, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA): Engel is the first case in the U.S. Supreme Court to limit school-sponsored prayer in the public schools. And it produced an enormous political reaction. 

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: Bishop Pike, you were saying about the Supreme Court. Something unpleasant, I hope. 

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: People were threatened by it. People thought something important was being taken away.

DANIEL ROTH: It’s hard to put into words the hatred, the venom. 

JONATHAN ENGEL: A lot of people were very angry about it. And they were angry at us.

DANIEL ROTH: The 2,000 pieces of hate mail that we got were vile, I mean, they really were vile – Go back to Russia, you commie. And you know, things like that. I mean, the phone literally did not stop ringing. And all, all night long.

JONATHAN ENGEL: One of the things my father always talked about was a phone call he received in his office. The guy says, we have your kids, and hangs up. He ran straight to the school. It was a hoax, but it really rattled the living daylights out of him.

DANIEL ROTH: Another day I was walking home. I turned the corner and there were all these police cars and fire engines. It turned out that half a dozen kids had burned a cross on our lawn. It was terrible, it was really terrible.

I didn’t always feel this way about my dad, but I’m very proud of what he did, and I admire him.

LAWRENCE ROTH: A lot of living in this house. Some of it, somewhat painful.

DANIEL ROTH: I’d like to think that I would have been courageous enough. But knowing what I know now and knowing what happened in the aftermath, probably not. 

NARRATION: Over the next few decades, there were many attempts to put prayer back in the public schools, but with little success.

Then in 2016, a new case appeared.

NEWS REPORT: Joe Kennedy was a football coach at Bremerton Washington High School for eight years. What put him in the spotlight was what he did after the final whistle. 

JOE KENNEDY: Just a really brief silent prayer by myself on the 50 yard line, thanking God for what the kids just did on the field and me being part of it.

NARRATION: Coach Kennedy’s lawyer, Kelly Shackelford, argued that his client’s midfield prayer in front of Bremerton’s football fans was a private act.

KELLY SHACKELFORD (PRESIDENT, FIRST LIBERTY INSTITUTE): If you can pull out your phone and make a reservation, if you can call your spouse, if you can do any of the other things that people are doing after the game, you certainly have a right to go to a knee and thank God for the privilege of coaching the young men that you coach.

NARRATION: But others took a different view.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: Kennedy said I’m just one more person. I’m praying in my private capacity. But he wasn’t in his private capacity. He was in his governmental capacity as coach, and he was on the field, which is his classroom, really, and he was gathering the players around him.

JANE REBELOWSKI (BREMERTON RESIDENT): There was a ruckus going on at the high school every Friday night, you know, he would start praying, and the students would gather around him. Then all of a sudden politicians started showing up. And then out-of-town people with signs.

NARRATION: Fearing Kennedy’s prayers made it appear the school district was endorsing his religious activity on the field, he was placed on paid administrative leave. Kennedy then sued. 

NEWS REPORT: The U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments for one of the most important school prayer cases in more than a decade.

JENNIFER CHAMBERLIN (BREMERTON RESIDENT): What upset me the most about learning that this coach was praying with students was that I knew it was a clear violation of this law that exists for a very good reason: to protect vulnerable students from coercion by adults. I knew that there were students out there who might feel outcast from the experience.

NARRATION: But when Chamberlin went public about her concerns in Bremerton, the blowback was fierce.

JENNIFER CHAMBERLIN: There would be random comments saying, you know, I’m going to hell. And I’ll pray for you, I’ll pray for your house to burn down. I’ll pray for the brakes to be cut on your car. There was even a page that was dedicated to, you know – fire Jennifer Chamberlin from her job. Really, all I ever wanted was for my son to have a normal year, but this year was not normal. Joe Kennedy was, even by his own admission, he was praying with students.

NEWS REPORT: We begin with that breaking news. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that a high school football coach has the First Amendment right to pray on the field after games. The ruling says the school district violated the coach’s free speech and free exercise rights by barring him from doing so. 

NARRATION: The Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling argued that Kennedy’s prayers could be seen as private because the game had ended. But because he was still a coach on the field with his players, the opinion went against a longstanding legal precedent that separated prayer from school-sponsored activity.

KELLY SHACKELFORD: This is the biggest religious freedom decision that’s been handed down I think in at least 50 years. It’s going to change things dramatically in the future. A lot of things that people sort of have been trained for 50 years – Oh, you can’t do that. All those things that might have been seen to be a problem are no longer issues because we’re not in a country that’s sort of a country of religious cleansing.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: We have a very conservative majority on the Supreme Court these days, who are very much pro-religion. That’s very different from being pro-religious liberty. The longer-term importance is it is a threat to the whole body of law on school-sponsored prayer. Conservative Christian litigating organizations and conservative school boards are saying – we got a free hand now. So there’ll be more litigation as a result of Kennedy.

JONATHAN ENGEL: I sit on tenterhooks all the time about seeing that somebody’s going to bring a suit  saying that they have the right to have organized prayer in public schools. I would not be the least bit surprised to see a case – see the Engel case come up again in the Supreme Court. So we may have to fight this battle again.   

People don’t understand the separation of church and state. They don’t understand that it’s there to protect them.