A saying goes, "as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools", but they meant that students would look for help wherever they could get it.  But a subset of people felt it also reflected a fairly uniform view about school prayer: though federal law does not endorse a national religion, schools are funded and controlled by school districts and religious Americans generally approved of it.

Not so much any more; over the last two generations sharp differences in school-prayer support between different generations and their religious denominations are evident, according to survey results. 

The paper in Sociological Forum maps a general decline in advocacy for school prayer starting in the mid-1970s which  became stronger as anti-establishment Baby Boomers rose to positions of authority during through the 1980s. Despite rather overblown concern about the power of religious groups, school-prayer support is only high among evangelicals. Catholics and mainline Protestants in the US don't support it much at all.

There once was very little difference between Catholics and evangelicals on the topic and only a relatively small difference in opinion between evangelicals and mainline Protestants, particularly among those born in the early 1930s.

But differences grew tremendously across generations so that by the time those born in the 1960s and 1970s came of age, a large gap had emerged between evangelical Protestants and both mainline Protestants and Catholics.

Sociologist Philip Schwadel at University of Nebraska-Lincoln looked at data from the General Social Survey from 1974-2010 and created a measure for Americans' support for prayer and reading of religious scripture in public schools over the decades. The results tracked the impact of religious affiliation and generational differences on the role of religion in public education, he said.

"Social and cultural changes have led to greater opposition to state-sanctioned prayer and reading religious materials in public schools among some segments of the population," Schwadel said in a statement. "Specifically, there's growing opposition among non-evangelicals but not evangelicals, and these changes manifest across generations."

Only evangelical Protestants have remained staunchly pro-school-prayer over that time. As other religious denominations faced generationally influenced fluctuations on the topic, evangelicals persisted and more than 70 percent of evangelicals express support for school prayer, regardless of what generation they came from.

"What we see in these results is that there's a very clear, unwavering perspective in the evangelical community on the role of prayer in public life," Schwadelsaid. "While younger evangelicals seem to be more open to some issues, such as environmentalism, when it comes to key issues, they simply do not change across generations. There seem to be some bedrock issues they won't budge on."

Why? According to Schwadel's findings, the drop was related to both "period effects" and "cohort effects" – the events of the times, highlighted by several high-profile court cases on the subject, likely began to affect opinions among people of a certain age; at the same time, the general disposition of the generation going through those times was playing a major factor.

The start of the time frame in the study – the mid-1970s –were a time of high levels of support for prayer in schools compared with the following three decades, Schwadel said; at the same time, Baby Boomers began to make up more of the population. Known for their skepticism for organized religion, the Boomers likely contributed to a consistent, decade-long drop in support of school prayer to a lower overall level that remains today.

Schwadel said he had anticipated the decline among mainline Protestants; however, he was surprised to see a parallel slide in support for school prayer among Catholics, who began the 1970s virtually tied in their level of approval with evangelicals.

One possible explanation, Schwadel said, is that over time, Catholics have become more "mainstreamed" than they were in the first half of the 20th century, when they either attended parochial schools or public schools that were predominantly Catholic. Their integration into public schools may have cut into their support for school prayer because the prayer was Protestant. That would also explain why Jews support it the least.

The survey results showed:

  • African Americans and Southerners registered the highest levels of support.
  • Jewish respondents indicated the lowest levels of support, at 24 percent. Even those with no religion supported it more, at 37 percent.
  • Highly educated and younger respondents in the study were less likely to support it. 

"These results are relevant to debates regarding the social impact of religious affiliation, generational differences and Americans' views of the role of religion in the public sphere," he said.