As the founding fathers were writing the Constitution, they believed that government needed to be secular in order to keep the peace between religious factions, and they went to great lengths to create a state without any religious aspirations. In accordance with this goal, as public education was spread through the nation, a law was passed to prohibit the use of public funds to support sectarian schools. Rather than teach religion, it became the task of schools to create good Americans. Over the course of the 20th century, a number of Supreme Court cases refined the relationship between public education and religious freedom. The public debate over this relationship continues today.
Keywords Common School; Democracy; Horace Mann; Proselytize; Public Education; Religion; Sectarian; Secular; Secularism; Secular Humanism; Separation of Church and State; Supreme Court
Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion is the right to worship as one pleases, the right to choose (or not choose) a religion without fear of reprisal from government. As democracy spreads across the world, many evolving countries are incorporating this right into their government's foundation. Davis (2006) recognizes that, "the number of democracies worldwide has more than tripled (to 120) in the last 30 years…most democracies today are "liberal" democracies, which means that fundamental rights or liberties of the citizens are built into the legal structure of the regime" (Davis, 2006, para. 1). With the spread of democracy around the world, freedom of religion is becoming a basic human right.
The principle of freedom of religion is not new. Some of the first written evidence mankind has of this ideal appears on the Cyrus Cylinder, dated to around 539 BC. Cyrus, King of the Persian Kingdom, liberated Babylon from Nabonidus, by walking into the city and taking it. He wrote, "I took great care to peacefully (protect) the city of Babylon and its cult places. (And) as for the citizens of Babylon, whom Nabonidus had made subservient in a manner totally unsuited to them against the will of the gods, I released them from their weariness and loosened their burden" (Chavalas, 2006, para. 5). As Cyrus was taking over the famed city, he did so with toleration of its inhabitants and their holy places. This was done in order to keep peace with the citizens of Babylon.
American founding fathers in the 18th century addressed freedom of religion in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Within the outline for a new government, placing Freedom of Religion first showed how important the founding fathers knew this idea to be. The First Amendment says, in part:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"
The Constitution without Religion
Religion played a central role in early American settlers' lives. By the time the Constitution was being written, there were many different Christian sects already well established in the new world. Some colonists came to American for religious freedom, but many more came for commercial opportunities and to establish profitable plantations and businesses for their benefactors back in England and continued to adhere to their own versions of Christianity.
As Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton et al. were writing the Constitution, they knew they could not get the widely varying sects in each colony to agree on which doctrine was the most proper and suited to govern all the inhabitants of the country. Forming a government based on one religion would be divisive at a time when the founders were trying to unite a nation together, so they solidly rejected the idea of a Christian state. They sought instead to create laws providing that the property and health of citizens not be hindered by fraud or violence and left religion out of it. They saw government as needing to be non-secular in order to keep the peace and they went to great lengths to create a state without any religious aspirations. The new government "would not serve the glory of God; it would merely preside over a commercial republic, an individualistic and competitive America preoccupied with private rights and personal autonomy" (Kramnic & Moore, 1996, p. 86).
Education in Early America
Prior to the establishment of the United States, the Constitution and the federal government, education in Colonial America was designed to create and sustain a Christian civilization. In the 1640's, Massachusetts and Virginia passed laws that required children receive some education. Massachusetts fared better than Virginia in this endeavor, as the Puritans placed a strong emphasis on learning. For more than 100 years, beginning around 1690, most school learning was done using the New England Primer, a textbook created by the Puritans, whose "great theme was God and our relationship to Him" (Nord, 1995, p. 65). The main purpose to sending children to school during this time was to learn their parents' and community's religious doctrine.
Before the Civil War, schoolbooks accepted Christian accounts of the world almost certainly. Slowly, the movement for tax supported "common schools" began. Common schools were non-sectarian in design and begun for a variety of reasons. "Some scholars see the movement as a natural extension of democracy and liberalism…" (Nord, 1995, p. 71). It was an effort to create skilled workers in order to ensure America's economic status worldwide, or possibly to "accept the common values of order and discipline within a society" (Nord, 1995, p. 71). Public common schools were supported by tax dollars and educating children became mandatory in America.
Although they professed to be, common schools were not entirely without religion. Horace Mann, a Protestant, propagated the idea of a common school education stressing only those convictions upon which 'men of goodwill' agreed. The bible was to speak for itself without any of the nuances in Christianity that caused division along sectarian lines. At first, many Protestants protested this schooling idea. They felt their religion should be a central part of the education process. However, they began to rally around the idea as more Roman Catholics immigrated to America. Opinion shifted to be that children are better off in a school where the Bible is not interpreted than being educated by or under strict guidance of a Roman Catholic priest. Catholics revolted against this idea and created a huge parochial system of education, which still exists today. Then, because tax dollars supported common schools, Catholics argued for tax dollars to support their schools as well.
In 1875, Congress fell only a few votes shy of passing a constitutional amendment prohibiting the use of all public funds for sectarian education. Congress did, however, pass a law in 1876 stating all new member-states must provide means for creating public schools free from sectarian control. During this period, "many states adopted constitutional amendments prohibiting the use of state funds for sectarian schools" (Nord, 1995, p. 73).
Education without Religion
The largest motivational factor for outlawing sectarian schools, according to constitutional scholar Douglas Laycock, was "trace(ed back) not to any careful deliberations about constitutional principles of the proper relations of church and state. Rather it traces to vigorous 19th century anti-Catholicism and nativ(e) reaction to Catholic immigration" (as cited in Nord, 1995, p. 73). In order to keep the peace, educators at the time came to the same conclusion the founding fathers had: eliminate what is discordant. Take religion out of everyday classrooms and find another central purpose for educating youth. Rather than teach religion, it became the task of schools to create good Americans.
Schools began espousing ideas about America and Americanism rather than religion. Textbooks presented America as being the most prosperous, successful country in the world. This idea became more important as the country was flooded with immigrants. Public schools became "cultural factories of Americanization, transforming the raw material of foreign cultures into good American citizens" (Nord, 1995, p. 75). During this time, America's economy continued to grow and the middle class took more opportunity to shape and develop what was taught in schools. A major reason high school became popular was that businesses required a better-trained work force. In 1917, Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act, the first act encouraging and funding vocational education.
First Supreme Court Cases
During the ensuing years, the Supreme Court viewed its role in public education as furthering the Jeffersonian principle of creating a "wall" between church and state....
In a new series of occasional reports, “Religion and the Courts: The Pillars of Church-State Law,” the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life explores the complex, fluid relationship between government and religion. Among the issues to be examined are religion in public schools, displays of religious symbols on public property, conflicts concerning the free exercise of religion, and government funding of faith-based organizations.
Nearly a half-century after the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling striking down school-sponsored prayer, Americans continue to fight over the place of religion in public schools. Indeed, the classroom has become one of the most important battlegrounds in the broader conflict over religion’s role in public life.
Some Americans are troubled by what they see as an effort on the part of federal courts and civil liberties advocates to exclude God and religious sentiment from public schools. Such an effort, these Americans believe, infringes upon the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.
Civil libertarians and others, meanwhile, voice concern that conservative Christians are trying to impose their values on students of all religious stripes. Federal courts, the civil libertarians point out, have consistently interpreted the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion to forbid state sponsorship of prayer and most other religious activities in public schools.
Despite that long series of court decisions, polls show that large numbers of Americans favor looser, not tighter, limits on religion in public schools. According to an August 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than two-thirds of Americans (69%) agree with the notion that “liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of the schools and the government.” And a clear majority (58%) favor teaching biblical creationism along with evolution in public schools.
Conflicts over religion in school are hardly new. In the 19th century, Protestants and Catholics frequently fought over Bible reading and prayer in public schools. The disputes then were over which Bible and which prayers were appropriate to use in the classroom. Some Catholics were troubled that the schools’ reading materials included the King James version of the Bible, which was favored by Protestants. In 1844, fighting broke out between Protestants and Catholics in Philadelphia; a number of people died in the violence and several Catholic churches were burned. Similar conflicts erupted during the 1850s in Boston and other parts of New England. In the early 20th century, liberal Protestants and their secular allies battled religious conservatives over whether students in biology classes should be taught Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The Supreme Court stepped into those controversies when it determined, in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) and Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause applied to the states. The two clauses say, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Before those two court decisions, courts had applied the religion clauses only to actions of the federal government.
Soon after the Everson decision, the Supreme Court began specifically applying the religion clauses to activities in public schools. In its first such case, McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), the high court invalidated the practice of having religious instructors from different denominations enter public schools to offer religious lessons during the school day to students whose parents requested them. A key factor in the court’s decision was that the lessons took place in the schools. Four years later, in Zorach v. Clauson, the court upheld an arrangement by which public schools excused students during the school day so they could attend religious classes away from school property.
Beginning in the 1960s, the court handed religious conservatives a series of major defeats. It began with the landmark 1962 ruling, in Engel v. Vitale, that school-sponsored prayer, even if it were nonsectarian, violated the Establishment Clause. Since then, the Supreme Court has pushed forward, from banning organized Bible reading for religious and moral instruction in 1963 to prohibiting prayers at high school football games 2000.
In these and other decisions, the court has repeatedly stressed that the Constitution prohibits public schools from indoctrinating children in religion. But it is not always easy to determine exactly what constitutes indoctrination or school sponsorship of religious activities. For example, can a class on the Bible as literature be taught without a bias for or against the idea that the Bible is religious truth? Can students be compelled to participate in a Christmas-themed music program? Sometimes students themselves, rather than teachers, administrators or coaches, bring their faith into school activities. For instance, when a student invokes gratitude to God in a valedictory address, or a high school football player offers a prayer in a huddle, is the school legally responsible for their religious expression?
The issues are complicated by other constitutional guarantees. For instance, the First Amendment also protects freedom of speech and freedom of association. Religious groups have cited those guarantees in support of student religious speech and in efforts to obtain school sponsorship and resources for student religious clubs.
The right of a student or student club to engage in religious speech or activities on school property may, however, conflict with other protections, such as the right of students to avoid harassment. In one recent case, for example, a federal appeals court approved a high school’s decision to prohibit a student from wearing a T-shirt containing a biblical passage condemning homosexuality. Because the student had graduated by the time the Supreme Court granted his appeal, the Supreme Court ordered the lower court to vacate its ruling and dismiss the case.
In another instance of conflicting rights, some student religious groups want the right to exclude students who do not share the groups’ beliefs, specifically on questions of sexuality. For example, the Christian Legal Society, which has chapters in many law schools, is embroiled in litigation over its policy that only students who believe that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin can serve in leadership positions.
As these more recent conflicts show, public schools remain a battlefield where the religious interests of parents, students, administrators and teachers often clash. The conflicts affect classroom curricula, high school football games, student clubs, graduation ceremonies – and the lives of everyone with an interest in public education.
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