From Scopes to Dover-12: The history of religion in US public schools

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is interesting to note that in 1925, the attempt that was being made by religious believers was to keep evolution from being taught in the schools because Biblical creation theories had already been eliminated. William Jennings Bryan was essentially arguing for two things: (1) If religion was not to be taught in schools, then neither should evolution; and (2) the community of taxpayers had the right to decide what children should be taught in schools. Bryan was arguing for the state to be allowed to ban the teaching of evolution since public school teachers were already prohibited from presenting the biblical view.

Readers might be puzzled by Bryan’s line of argument since the popular view now is that the banning of the teaching of religion from public schools is a late 20th century phenomenon coinciding with the rise of secularism, and that in earlier times public education was riddled with religious teaching, which was why the teaching of evolution was opposed. But the history of religious instruction in US public schools is more complicated.

In order to understand the real status of religious education in schools that led up to the Scopes trial, we need to go back to the early days of the founding of the republic. US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in his concurring opinion in the 1948 case McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 gives a nice history of the role of religion in schools. (By a curious coincidence, Frankfurter, then at Harvard Law School, was one of the people who worked with the ACLU on strategy for the Scopes case.) It was in the McCollum case that religious instruction in public schools was first explicitly ruled to be unconstitutional under the US constitution.

As Frankfurter pointed out, the original purpose of education was religious education.

Traditionally, organized education in the Western world was Church education. It could hardly be otherwise when the education of children was primarily study of the Word and the ways of God. Even in the Protestant countries, where there was a less close identification of Church and State, the basis of education was largely the Bible, and its chief purpose inculcation of piety. To the extent that the State intervened, it used its authority to further aims of the Church.

The emigrants who came to these shores brought this view of education with them. Colonial schools certainly. . .started with a religious orientation. When the common problems of the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony revealed the need for common schools, the object was the defeat of “one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.”

But while this broadly religious sentiment was commonly accepted, the early colonialists and drafters of the constitution were also aware, from the history of the countries that they had left behind in Europe, that the close identification of government with any particular religious sect could drive huge wedges between people, and they were uneasy about repeating that history in the US.

In his opinion in the 1947 landmark case Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Hugo Black summarized the abuses that occurred in the early days of the American settlers and which led to the inclusion of the establishment and free exercise clauses in the First Amendment.

These practices of the old world were transplanted to, and began to thrive in, the soil of the new America. The very charters granted by the English Crown to the individuals and companies designated to make the laws which would control the destinies of the colonials authorized these individuals and companies to erect religious establishments which all, whether believers or nonbelievers, would be required to support and attend. An exercise of this authority was accompanied by a repetition of many of the old-world practices and persecutions. Catholics found themselves hounded and proscribed because of their faith; Quakers who followed their conscience went to jail; Baptists were peculiarly obnoxious to certain dominant Protestant sects; men and women of varied faiths who happened to be in a minority in a particular locality were persecuted because they steadfastly persisted in worshipping God only as their own consciences dictated. And all of these dissenters were compelled to pay tithes and taxes to support government-sponsored churches whose ministers preached inflammatory sermons designed to strengthen and consolidate the established faith by generating a burning hatred against dissenters.

These practices became so commonplace as to shock the freedom-loving colonials into a feeling of abhorrence. The imposition of taxes to pay ministers’ salaries and to build and maintain churches and church property aroused their indignation. It was these feelings which found expression in the First Amendment. No one locality and no one group throughout the Colonies can rightly be given entire credit for having aroused the sentiment that culminated in adoption of the Bill of Rights’ provisions embracing religious liberty. But Virginia, where the established church had achieved a dominant influence in political affairs and where many excesses attracted wide public attention, provided a great stimulus and able leadership for the movement. The people there, as elsewhere, reached the conviction that individual religious liberty could be achieved best under a government which was stripped of all power to tax, to support, or otherwise to assist any or all religions, or to interfere with the beliefs of any religious individual or group.

What people were concerned about was not the teaching of religious ideas per se or even teaching the Bible, but the influence of any specific religious institution (a ‘church’) in schools. So they tended to oppose any formal links of government with religion.

To give a flavor for the kinds of debate going on at the time, consider James Madison’s famous 1785 document called the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments which he wrote in opposition to a bill, introduced into the General Assembly of Virginia, that was designed to levy a tax to support the hiring of teachers of religion in the schools.

In his remonstrance, Madison presciently pointed out that although at any time all the people might believe in the same religion and thus feel that there is no problem with the state supporting it, once state support of religion was allowed it would not take much for narrower and narrower sectarian interests to jockey for control to give their particular beliefs pride of place at the expense of others. He said:

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?. . . Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.. . . [E]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.

Partly because of the powerful arguments made by Madison against state support of religion, the bill did not pass and instead the Virginia legislature in 1786 enacted Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom.

So we see that at the close of the 18th century, Americans, even though they were broadly religious, saw the dangers that a close identification of religion with the state could produce and were thus wary of any formal entanglement of the government with any specific sect or church.

Next: Rising calls for the separation of church and state

POST SCRIPT: Another scene from Soap

Here is an extended scene from Soap which features all the main characters. It takes place in the home of Jessica Tate (Mary Campbell’s sister) just after the funeral of Bert Campbell’s son Peter, who had been murdered.

The “rabbi” in this scene is actually Danny, Mary Campbell’s son, who is in disguise because the mob wants to kill him.

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