A group of children prays in this stock photo. (iStockphoto.com) A group of children prays in this stock photo. (iStockphoto.com)

A group of children prays in this stock photo. (iStockphoto.com)

By Anna Bruzgulis August 10, 2015

Rafael Cruz, father of Ted Cruz, says 'everybody prayed,' read Bible at schools prior to 1962

Rafael Cruz is more than just a proud parent to his son, Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Rafael is seen as Ted’s political "super-surrogate," appearing at Tea Party and 9-12 meetings as well as various Republican clubs to speak on his son’s behalf.

In a recent interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Cruz talked about more than just his son’s campaign. He lamented court decisions that closed a more God-centric era in public schools.

"Prior to 1962, everybody prayed before school started. In 1962, the Supreme Court banned prayer," said Cruz, who is a nondenominational pastor. "In 1963, they banned the Bible from school. Prior to that, the Bible was the principal textbook in all schools."

We were curious about whether Bible reading and prayer in public schools were as prevalent as Cruz claimed before the Supreme Court stepped in.

PunditFact could not reach Cruz for comment, but from what we found it looks like Cruz senior was overstating the breadth of religion in schools.

What superintendents said

Were school-sponsored prayers and Bible readings really as widespread as Cruz says? Far from it.

"The history of school prayer and Bible reading before the 1960s is complicated, but it is certainly not the case that there was a universal practice on school prayer that applied to all students," said Richard Layton, co-author of the 2014 book For the Civic Good: The Liberal Case for Teaching Religion in the Public Schools and an associate professor of religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Layton pointed us to a 1961 article from the Religious Education journal, which contained a survey from around 1960 that dealt with school prayer and Bible reading. The survey was mailed to 4,000 school district superintendents around the nation. About 55 percent responded.

The survey includes many categories, but there was one clear takeaway: The country was divided on religious education, Bible reading and prayer in schools.

Almost half of respondents said "homeroom devotional services" were not held in the school district. Of the superintendents who said their districts oversaw homeroom devotionals, only one-third said that all district schools had them, while 17 percent said that only some schools did.

They were similarly divided on Bible readings. About 42 percent of superintendents said that schools in their system had them. The remaining 58 percent said readings did not happen in their district.

Different schools incorporated religion and Bible discussion in different ways, but the Bible was not the "principal textbook," experts told us. While Bibles may have been passed out in certain schools with other textbooks, this was not always the case. Some schools read passages from the Bible over the speaker, and in others teachers read scripture in front of the class.

Whatever their district’s practice, the majority of superintendents felt that their school district was dealing with religion in an "adequate way."

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What state laws said

State laws from the early 20th century also show a divide on religion in schools.

A 1926 report indicated that only seven states (in addition to the District of Columbia) required Bible reading in all public schools. Another seven states allowed the Bible to be read in public schools but did not require it. Numerous other states were silent on the issue.

By 1946, a survey showed that the number of states permitting or requiring Bible reading had increased, according to the 1950 book Church and State in the United States. Thirteen states (and Washington, D.C.) required Bible reading, and 25 more allowed Bible reading.

Generally, Bible reading and "homeroom devotional services" in public schools were far more prevalent in the southern and northeastern states than elsewhere in the country.

Supreme Court’s sweeping change

The Supreme Court decisions that Cruz mentioned had the biggest impact on schools that sponsored Bible readings or prayers.

In the 1962 case Engel vs. Vitale, the court overturned a New York law requiring a nondenominational prayer at the beginning of the school day. Although students could opt not to participate, the court reasoned that the law violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which was aimed at preventing government interference with religion.

A year later, the court ruled in Abington School District vs. Schempp that school-sponsored Bible readings were also unconstitutional, using similar reasoning as in Engel vs. Vitale.

The Supreme Court decisions resulted in bans on government- and school-sponsored prayers and Bible readings in public schools. Private prayers and personal Bible reading were still allowed at school, so they were not entirely "banned."

Subsequent cases in 1990 and 2000 have dealt with student religious groups meeting on school grounds after hours and student-led prayer before games. (The latter was ruled unconstitutional.)

Our ruling

Cruz said, "Prior to 1962, everybody prayed before school started," and "the Bible was the principal textbook in all schools."

Surveys and state laws from the era show school prayer and Bible reading were not as universal as Cruz said. Survey results of superintendents from the time show the nation’s schools were split roughly down the middle when it came to either religious activity. State laws also varied widely, though 38 had laws that at least permitted it (13 required it).

This means the Bible textbook was also not the "principal textbook" in "all" schools.

Cruz exaggerated the scope of school prayer and Bible readings before the Supreme Court decisions. We rate his claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

The Austin American-Statesman, "For evangelical voters, Rafael Cruz may be Ted's best apostle," July 31, 2015

The Washington Times, "Rafael Cruz finds success on speaking circuit as son runs for president," April 27, 2015

United States Courts, "Facts and Case Summary - Engel v. Vitale," accessed Aug. 5, 2015

United States Courts, "Similar Cases - Engel v. Vitale," accessed Aug. 5, 2015

Religious Education, "The Extent of Religious Influence in American Public Schools," published online July 10, 2006

Religious Education, "State Laws Relative to Use of the Bible in or by the Public Schools," published online July 10, 2006

Religion in American Public Life, "The Establishment Clause," Oct. 1, 1985

Church and State in the United States, Volume II, "Adjustments in Public Education," 1950

Email interview with Richard Layton, associate professor of religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Aug. 5, 2015

Email and phone interview with Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Aug. 4, 2015

Phone interview with James Reichley, author of Religion in American Public Life, Aug. 4, 2015

Email interview with Charles Glenn, professor of educational leadership at Boston University, Aug. 3, 2015

Email interview with Robert Fowler, political science professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Aug. 5, 2015

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Rafael Cruz, father of Ted Cruz, says 'everybody prayed,' read Bible at schools prior to 1962

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