Catholic and mainstream Protestant support for prayer in schools has sharply declined since the 1970s, while Evangelical support for the practice has remained steady according to a new study released Thursday.
Changing generations, not changing attitudes, seem to have been behind the decline, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Philip Schwadel, who compiled the data from the 1974-2010 General Social Survey, administered biannually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
"There's been a considerable decline in support of in-school prayer among mainline Protestants and Catholics," he says. "But these changes didn't occur so much over time among everyone—it was driven by cohort replacements. Older generations were dying off and younger ones replaced them."
Schwadel says that as younger generations of Catholic and Protestant expanded their social networks to include people of varying religions, they became more accepting of the fact that not everyone is Christian.
"It's called the Aunt Sally effect—everyone has an aunt that's a different religion from you. It makes people increasingly reluctant to say another religion is bad," he says.
Schwadel says it's different than the change in sentiment that has occurred with gay marriage, which has gained rapid acceptance over the past decade.
"Growth in acceptance of same-sex marriage is a period effect--it happened rapidly among people of all generations," he says. "That's not what's happening with school prayer."
Overall, Americans still favor prayer in public schools, according to a 2011 poll from Rasmussen Reports. According to that poll, 65 percent of American adults support prayer in public schools. But according to Schwadel's study, many of those supporters are Evangelicals: About 73 percent of Evangelicals support prayer and reading bible verses in public schools, compared with about 65 percent of Catholics. Mainstream Protestants' support fell below 60 percent in the 1970s, but data hasn't been kept since then. Two Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s ruled that state-sponsored prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.
"The results aren't surprising," Schwadel says of the latest data. And the approval of school prayer is likely to drop as people born in the 1980s and 1990s are counted in the survey. "I think there's a general trend of social approval of all religions. I don't expect those born in the 1980s or later would be particularly supportive of school prayer."