Some time ago, an acquaintance of mine who's Catholic - a Secular Franciscan, in fact - twice sent me a petition to return prayer to the public schools (with the idea, of course, that I would sign it). The first time, I sent back an explanation of why I wouldn't sign it. The second time I just said, "Didn't we talk about this already?" and I never received it again.
I was reminded of this episode while watching God in America this past week on PBS. For anyone who didn't see it, it was a 6-hour history of religion in the United States, beginning with colonial times and continuing to the present. Besides some brief overviews of historical periods, the series basically picked out certain stories to tell at greater length. The one chosen for the period of Irish immigration to the United States was that of Bishop Hughes (not sure of his first name - John?), who worked for the right of Catholic kids in New York to get an education while still remaining Catholic.
Up until that time, public schools in New York, like most of the country, were openly Protestant and much of the material used was virulently (the program's term) anti-Catholic. Not surprisingly, Catholic parents weren't sending their kids to school. Bishop Hughes argued that, under the Constitution, each child should have an equal right to an education and, because of this, religion shouldn't be taught in the public schools. He lost a public debate on this, then turned to the ballot box by endorsing local candidates who agreed with him (something that wouldn't be done today). A number of "his" candidates won, and the measure to remove religious education from New York City public schools passed by one vote. Following this, there were violent (literally) reactions against Catholic locations - by good Christians, I'm sure.
A couple of things to note about this: There was no court case involved, so no other school district was in any way obliged to follow New York's example. Since the PBS program concentrated on specific stories, it didn't say much about how/if the idea spread. (There was a story told of the son of an atheist - decades later - sitting in the hallway while other students received religious education from their own pastors during the school day.) And taking religious education out of the public schools wasn't the same thing as removing prayer from public schools; that didn't come until much later, and the effort wasn't led by Catholics but by a group of Jewish parents (whose homes were violently attacked - by good Christians, I'm sure). It should also be mentioned that, during the time he was pressing his case, Bishop Hughes raised enough money to open a dozen Catholic schools, so the Catholics of New York weren't depending on the public schools to do everything.
Bishop Hughes and his family, like many Irish, had immigrated to the United States to escape religious persecution. He was especially insistent on his work regarding the public schools because he felt he was making the nation live up to what it said in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He considered his a very American stand. The Bill of Rights is specifically meant to protect the rights of minorities. Without that protection, a democracy could be a dangerous place for anyone who's different from the majority. During the section of the program on the Supreme Court declaration that prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional, Billy Graham was shown saying that, if a vote were taken, 80% of Americans would vote to keep prayer in the public schools.* It was that other 20% that the Court ruling - and the First Amendment - protected. When my acquaintance made the point that most parents were Christians and the majority should rule, I asked him how he'd feel about that argument if he were sending his child to a public school in a predominantly Islamic or Hindu community.
I also reminded him that Catholic schools came into being for a real reason - to allow Catholic children to escape the rule of the majority that made public schools into Protestant institutions. My aunt was denied a job teaching in a public school system during the 1930's because (as she was told to her face) "We don't hire any damn Catholics." If any group should be standing up for the separation of religion and state, it's Catholics.
*Later on, there was a very interesting part of the program on how hard Billy Graham worked (behind the scenes) to keep JFK from being elected President, solely because he was Catholic.