One of the constant bits of rhetorical excess we hear from religious right politicians is the claim that the Supreme Court “took God out of public schools” by “banning prayer” and “forbidding the reading of the Bible.” None of those things are true, of course, but truth rarely has much currency among the wingnuts. Steven Green has an interesting bit of history on such matters, pointing out that by the time the Supreme Court took mandatory prayer and Bible reading out of schools, the practice was already declining around the country.
The belief that the high court’s holdings on church and state defy our history and traditions is widely held, but it lacks an appreciation of our past. Contrary to the dominant view perpetuated by conservatives but shared by many, the modern Court’s decisions on religion in the schools were built on a jurisprudential foundation that was at least 100 years in the making. Rather than creating new law with its school prayer rulings, the justices affirmed a legal transition that had begun during the 19th century.
Controversy over the role of religion in public education arose with the founding of the nation’s common schools in the early 1800s. Early on, education leaders realized that the dominant practice of doctrinal religious instruction — consistent with evangelical Protestantism — was unnecessarily divisive and contravened the conscience rights of religious minorities. Educators settled on teaching “universal” religious teachings — termed “nonsectarianism” — which they believed would be acceptable to children of all faiths. Teachers would read the Bible “without note or comment,” and then only from those less controversial passages. But despite the effort at compromise, the system failed to satisfy religious skeptics on one extreme and conservative evangelicals on the other. School prayer and Bible reading remained controversial, and with the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants in mid-century, the issue exploded onto the national stage. Ohio became the first state to ban prayer and Bible reading in 1873, to be followed by Wisconsin in 1890 and a handful more at the turn of the century. Of greater impact, many urban school districts voluntarily halted the religious practices in response to complaints by Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities. These actions reflected a growing appreciation for the nation’s expanding religious pluralism and of the government’s limited role in promoting piety.
To be sure, nonsectarian exercises remained the dominant practice in the nation’s schools for many years, but a clear trend was underway. Education was being “secularized,” to the chagrin of religious conservatives. By 1960, as the Supreme Court was entering the fray, less than 40 percent of the nation’s schools — chiefly in the South and Midwest — mandated any religious exercises. And the bulk of those involved rote Bible reading, a practice unpalatable to many religiously devout people. In striking the practices, the justices not only affirmed that government has no business dictating religious matters; they were following a tradition of respect for religious pluralism that had been evolving for many years.
I forget who it was that noted, accurately, that the Supreme Court generally likes to be the last guy in on a gang tackle. The pattern is usually that the Court waits until legislatures have already begun to repeal oppressive laws and state courts have started to overturn them, then they rush in and jump on top of the pile while yelling, “Let’s do some justice here!”