Religion in Public Schools

views updated


For centuries in the Western world, organized education was church education; colonial schools established on the American shores therefore naturally reflected a religious orientation. Prior to the early nineteenth-century migration of Irish to this country, the orientation of these schools was Protestant—a fact that contributed to the establishment and growth of the Roman Catholic parochial school system. Nevertheless, when the released time plan for religious instruction was initiated in 1914, the majority of Roman Catholic children still attended public schools. The plan thus provided for separate religious instruction classes for Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews. Roman Catholic Church spokesmen condemned the Supreme Court's decision in mccollum v. board of education (1948) invalidating the program. Previously, however, Roman Catholics had protested against public school religious instruction with a Protestant orientation, and had instituted lawsuits challenging such programs' constitutionality. Public school authorities in New York chose to formulate their own "non-sectarian" prayer, which was submitted to and received the approval of prominent religious spokesmen of the three major faiths. The twenty-two-word prayer read: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country."

The denominational neutrality of the prayer, the Supreme Court held in engel v. vitale (1962), was immaterial. Nor was it relevant that observance on the part of students was voluntary (nonparticipating students were not even required to be in the classroom or assembly hall while the prayer was recited). Under the establishment clause, the Court said, aid to all religions was as impermissible as aid to one religion, even if the aid was noncoercive. The constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion means at least that it is "no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as part of a religious program carried on by government."

One year after Engel, the Court, in abington school district v. schempp, was called upon to rule on the constitutionality of two practices in the public schools common throughout the nation, prayer recitation and devotional Bible reading. In respect to the former it ruled immaterial the fact that, unlike Engel, the recited prayer had not been formulated by public school authorities, but was the Lord's Prayer taken from the Bible. The fatal flaw in the Engel regulation lay not in the authorship of the prayer but in the fact that its purpose and primary effect were the advancement of religion. This fact mandated invalidation of both Lord's Prayer recitation and devotional Bible reading. The Court rejected the claim that the purposes of the challenged program were the secular ones of promoting moral values, contradicting the materialistic trends of our time, perpetuating our institutions, and teaching literature. None of these factors, the Court said, justified use of the Bible as an instrument of religion or resort to a ceremony of pervasive religious character. Nothing in its decision, it concluded, was intended to cast doubt on the study of comparative religion or the study of the Bible for its literary and historic qualities, so long as these were presented as part of a secular program of education.

McCollum, Engel, and Schempp involved efforts to introduce religious teachings or practices into the public schools. epperson v. arkansas (1968) presented the converse, that is, religiously motivated exclusion of secular instruction from the public school curriculum. A statute forbade teaching "the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals." The Court held that the statute violated the establishment clause, because its purpose was to protect religious orthodoxy from inconsistent secular teaching of evolution.

In Stone v. Graham (1980) the Court struck down a Kentucky statute requiring the posting of copies of the Ten Commandments (purchased with private contributions) on the walls of all the public school classrooms in the state. The statute, it held, had no secular purpose; unlike the second part of the Commandments, the first (worshiping God, avoiding idolatry, not taking the Lord's name in vain, and observing the Sabbath) concerned religious rather than secular duties.

widmar v. vincent (1981) manifests a more tolerant approach in respect to colleges than to elementary and secondary schools. With but one dissent, the Court held that where state university facilities were open to groups and speakers of all kinds, they must also be open for use by an organization of evangelical Christian students for prayer, hymns, Bible commentary, and discussion of religious views and experience. As construed by the Court, the establishment clause did not mandate such exclusion; on the contrary, the state's interest in enforcing its own constitution's church-state separation clause was not sufficiently "compelling" to justify content-barred discrimination forbidden by the freedom of speech clause.

However, in Jaffree v. Board of School Commissioners (1984) the Court affirmed without opinion a Court of Appeals decision ruling unconstitutional an Alabama law authorizing voluntary participation in a prayer formulated by the legislators; and a year later, in wallace v. jaffree (1985) it invalidated another section of the statute that required a one-minute period of silence for "meditation or voluntary prayer." The provision, the Court said, did not have a valid secular purpose, but rather one that sought to return prayer to the public schools.

Leo Pfeffer


Pfeffer, Leo (1953) 1967 Church, State and Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press.

Stokes, A.P. and Pfeffer, Leo 1964 Church and State in the United States. New York: Harper & Row.

Tribe, Laurence H. 1984 American Constitutional Law. Chap. 14. Mineola, N.Y.: Foundation Press.

About this article

Religion in Public Schools

Updated About content Print Article


Religion in Public Schools