From Scopes to Dover-15: Religion gets edged out of schools even more

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

In the previous posts, we saw that by the first half of the twentieth century, the idea of the separation of church and state had taken such hold in the country that most religion-based practices had been taken out of the schools, although a few practices still remained. As religious groups tried to get more religion back into the schools, these various efforts led to more court cases.

The next major religion in schools case came in 1948, the year following the landmark Everson ruling, as a result of the growing practice of public schools granting ‘release time’ for the teaching of religion. This practice arose because some parents felt that relegating religious instruction to just the weekends to be done by private individuals or priests diminished the importance of religion in the eyes of children when compared to the secular curriculum taught as part of the regular school day. So they requested and received permission from schools to use part of the school day to teach religion, although the details of implementation varied from place to place.

In the case McCollum v. Board of Education (333 U.S. 203), a parent challenged the release time policy of the local public schools, whereby thirty to forty five minutes were set aside each week for teachers of religion, paid by a private consortium of religious organizations, to come to the schools to provide religious instruction to students whose parents had consented to have them attend. Children whose parents did not want such instruction for their children had to leave their classrooms and go to other parts of the building for secular studies. One such parent challenged the practice and the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision ruled that this practice was unconstitutional and effectively barred all religious instruction within public schools. Citing the Everson guidelines, Justice Black in his majority ruling struck down this policy saying that this use of the public school building and time to further religious education:

is beyond all question a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith.
. . .
For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere. Or, as we said in the Everson case, the First Amendment has erected a wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable.

Here not only are the State’s tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the State’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.

1952 saw a variant of the McCollum case Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, in which schools would authorize students during school hours, on written requests of their parents, to leave the school buildings and grounds and go to religious centers for religious instruction or devotional exercises. In this case, the US Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that this practice did not violate the establishment clause.

The next major case that resulted in further separation of religion and schools was in 1962 in Engel v. Vitale 370 U.S. 421. The New York state Board of Regents had adopted a policy whereby each class had to begin each day by saying aloud in the presence of the teacher the following prayer: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

Ten parents filed an objection to this so-called Regent’s Prayer. The US Supreme Court struck down the policy saying that having such governmental composed prayers, even if every student were not compelled to say it aloud, was unconstitutional. The ruling said that “state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools of the State at the beginning of each school day — even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and pupils who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited.”

Justice Hugo Black was again the author of this majority 6-1 opinion, and in it he said that: “The respondents’ argument to the contrary, which is largely based upon the contention that the Regents’ prayer is “nondenominational” and the fact that the program, as modified and approved by state courts, does not require all pupils to recite the prayer, but permits those who wish to do so to remain silent or be excused from the room, ignores the essential nature of the program’s constitutional defects. . . When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”

He drew upon history arguing that this kind of state-sponsored religion was precisely what the early colonialists had tried to escape in Europe and he deplored the tendency of people who oppose acts when they are in the minority singing a different tune when they become the majority. “It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America.. . .It is an unfortunate fact of history that, when some of the very groups which had most strenuously opposed the established Church of England found themselves sufficiently in control of colonial governments in this country to write their own prayers into law, they passed laws making their own religion the official religion of their respective colonies.”

Black rejected the argument that prohibiting practices such as this was demonstrating hostility to religion. He said that the founding fathers were instead trying to avoid the pitfalls that inevitably ensue when religion and the state get entangled, saying that they had “well justified fears which nearly all of them felt arising out of an awareness that governments of the past had shackled men’s tongues to make them speak only the religious thoughts that government wanted them to speak and to pray only to the God that government wanted them to pray to.”

Next: All prayer and Bible reading in schools is ruled unconstitutional

POST SCRIPT: Dover trial on Nova

The PBS show Nova is having a two-hour special documentary on the Dover trial called Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on trial, which is what my current series of posts is leading up to. If I was better organized, or not as long-winded, my series would have started earlier and my final posts, which deal with this trial would have coincided with the broadcast. Oh, well,…

The show is scheduled to be broadcast tomorrow (Tuesday, November 13, 2007) at 8:00pm EST but check your local PBS station for exact dates and times.

Here is a preview of the program

There is also a companion website.

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