The United States’ Public Education System, beginning around 1785, has come under scrupulous debate regarding the “separation of church and state” clauses, drafted into the Constitution in 1791, with the First Amendment. As a system designed around religion with its roots in social conformity, the issues stem from religious inclusion to religious exclusion. The question remains where do we, as a people, draw the line between freedom of religion and freedom from religion? It has become apparent that the answer varies depending on the ideals and beliefs of the members of Congress, the Supreme Courts, and the people who raise their voices.
Many of the early immigrants of the Americas came to the land “seeking religious liberty, yet many quickly moved to impose their religious beliefs on others and some made participation in local politics contingent on religiosity.” Through years of research, scholars and political scientists “have found that organized religion influences the political beliefs and behaviors of its adherents”… And today, “76 percent of all Americans consider religion an important part of their lives;” also, that “shared religious attitudes tend to affect voting and stances on particular issues. Catholics as a group, for example, favor aid to parochial schools [with the provisions of voucher programs], while many fundamental Protestants support organized prayer in public schools as well as abstinence only education” (O’Connor). This all shows that religiosity plays a heavy role in the political atmosphere of the United States, of which employs the Public Education System. If the majorities in office share a set of beliefs, morals, or standards, than legislation and government action will reflect the minds of the majority.
The American public education system, as all institutions regulated by the government, has its roots in the colonization of the New World. As colonists fled their home countries in fear of religious persecution, they flocked to America to be free to worship and live as they thought was right. Others came to advance the national religion of their mother countries. As each colony was established, several different philosophies of education emerged. Some were purely founded on religion, while others centered on citizenship and politics. With this kind of diversity at the roots of a national system, conflict is inevitable.
When the Framers set out to design the new government they considered this contention, and included legislation to control its effects, in the Bill of Rights. However, almost every “free” school that emerged throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had its roots on religion; whether it was Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, or any other; contrary to the separation of church and state clauses in the First Amendment. The only thing that kept these schools from succeeding was funding. Since the schools were supported by small government funds, and smaller public funds, they usually did not survive economic down times.
European countries of the time had a dominant national religion. All laws and policies were ground in said religion whether it was Roman Catholicism, Judaism, or another faith. Colonists who fled from religious persecution did not want the same thing to happen in the New World. They quickly formed schools to educate the growing generations in their faith. These schools varied in size and structure, but tended to center in the home of an older woman of the sect. The main intent of these schools was to instruct the younger generation in reading to be sure they would be able to read the Bible and carry on the faith for generations to come.
In fact, the first universities of the New World were for the same purpose, to be sure that future ministers could read the scriptures and prepare the lessons for their congregations. “The only institution of higher education in the South prior to the Revolutionary War was the College of William and Mary, established in 1693 to train ministers for the Church of England and bring Christianity to Native Americans” (Webb, 2007). Harvard also began as a sectarian school, meant to instruct future ministers of religion. The focus of the university was theology, but slowly expanded to include mainstream subjects until its focus became law.
The main focus of most colonial and early Republic schools was to encourage reading, writing, and arithmetic. Reading was first introduced from the Bible. Writing also followed the Bible, and included catechism, articles of faith, and religious doctrines of the citizenry belief systems. This was all that was seen as necessary for the girls growing up in these times. The provisions for girls served the purpose of them being able to read and comprehend the Bible and church teachings. The boys, however, were also encouraged to become knowledgeable in the law and politics to become faithful servants of the nation. This also proved helpful during times of war, to train the youth in support of the nation’s cause.
As the nation grew, so did its need for an answer to educating its youth. Before long there were laws enforcing schools as well as regulating them. Massachusetts led the new nation in law established schooling. In 1785, the state enacted a law which set aside a portion of every town or city for the purpose of schools. This law was based on population, and laid the foundation for future school districts and government regulated school systems.
With a nation as diverse as it already was, it was only a matter of time before religious diversity became religious controversy and adversity. Before a national system of schools was provided, the Framers sought to maintain their beliefs through the First Amendment to the Constitution. It states that “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (O’Connor, 2008). Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase, “the wall of separation.” The intent was to keep the government from imposing a belief system on its people and running the nation from religious perspectives. It also secured the religious freedom of the United State’s citizens to exercises one’s beliefs.
The first part of this amendment is also known as the Establishment Clause, it “directs the national government not to involve itself in religion, [creating the philosophical] wall of separation between church and state” (O’Connor). The establishment clause has been tested in the context of public education through several Supreme Court Cases dating back to the 1940’s. Throughout history, the Court has remained consistent when it comes to state sponsored prayer. It is observed that allowing any type of public prayer is unconstitutional based on the establishment clause. This conclusion has progressed over time; from finding that an agency provided and administered prayer essentially establishes religion, to an agency’s allowance of publicly administered prayer supports an established religion. In all cases, the Supreme Court has chosen to protect the majorities’ rights and denies the minorities’ rights.
The Court’s first ruling on public prayer was in 1962. Its opinion was that “the recitation in public school classrooms of a twenty-two-word nondenominational prayer drafted by the New Hyde Park, New York, school board was unconstitutional” (O’Connor), in the case of Engel v Vitale. The Court’s supported this opinion based on the fact that the board provided the prayer; because of this, the state of “New York officially approved religion” (Oyez Project, 1962). In this particular case, the school board violated the establishment clause by authorizing the prayer and as well as administering it. A similar case surfaced in 1992 in Lee v Weisman. The Court ruled against organized prayer in public schools again, this time the prayer was offered publicly during graduation ceremonies (Oyez Project, 1992).
In 2000 the Supreme Court took the establishment clause one step further. It observed that the clause not only protected students from the nation establishing a religion, and the school district, but fellow students as well. In Santa Fe Independent School District v Doe, the Court ruled against “student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games” (O’Connor). The high school’s elected student council chaplain would open the varsity football games with an invocation. After legal issues were raised in 1995, the school changed its policy to incorporate additional democratic processes. The new policy included the student body vote to approve or disapprove of the prayer. The policy also included the stipulation that the prayer be “nonsectarian non-proselytizing” (Oyez Project, 2000).
The Court’s opinion in Santa Fe (6-3), however, did not reflect the minorities’ position, for which Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote a dissent. Rehnquist “noted the ‘disturbing’ tone of the Court’s opinion that ‘bristled with hostility to all things religious in public life'” (Oyez Project, 2000). The establishment clause can be related to Americans’ freedom from religion. As citizens of the nation they are free from exposure, pressure, and persuasion of religious intent while on public school grounds during school functions. As a democratic nation, the content considered to be religiously offensive by the majority may be harmless to the minority.
The second portion of the First Amendment, also known as the free exercise clause, guarantees the citizens of the United States that their government will “not interfere with their practice of religion” (O’Connor). As a nation ruled by its society, by the people for the people, it is only natural that what conduct is regulated or permitted will change with society and the majority of the peoples’ belief systems. “In 1940, the Supreme Court observed that the First Amendment ’embraces two concepts-freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute, but…the second cannot be. Conduct remains subject to regulation of society” (O’Connor).
Apparently, the use of public land is not as regulated by the First Amendment as public prayer is. In 1981 a Missouri law prohibiting the use of state university buildings and grounds for ‘purposes of religious worship'” (O’Connor) was found by the Court to be unconstitutional. This case may have been the persuading voice to encourage Congress to pass the Equal Access Act, in 1984. This act provides equal access to public property by barring “public schools from discriminating against groups of students on the basis of ‘religious, political, philosophical or other content of the speech at such meetings'” (O’Connor).
The Equal Access Act was soon tested with Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v Mergens in 1990. The constitutionality of the law was upheld when the Court ruled in favor of the Bible Club which wished to use public high school classroom twice a week, but was refused the privilege. “Westside High School denied permission a group of students to form a Christian club with the same privileges and meeting terms as other Westside after-school student clubs” (Oyez Project, 1990). “In distinguishing between ‘curriculum’ and ‘non-curriculum student groups’ the Court held that since Westside permitted other non-curricular clubs, it was prohibited under the Equal Access Act from denying equal access to any after-school club based on the content of its speech” (Oyez Project, 1990).
When it comes to equality in the access of government property, the Court’s ruling is clear that it is unconstitutional to limit groups on the basis of religion. To do so impinges on the citizens’ right to exercise their religion and discriminates against groups of individuals based on religion. However, in other context it is not always that clear. Cases in which the salutation of the American Flag was challenged on the basis of the free exercise clause did not favor such a right. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been told by the Court that the States’ right to invoke a sense of nationality and patriotism weighs heavier than the individuals freedom of religion.
The free exercise clause is not absolute. “When secular law comes into conflict with religious law, the right to exercise one’s religious beliefs is often denied-especially if the religious beliefs in question are held by a minority or by an unpopular or ‘suspicious’ group” (O’Connor). In a democratic society that is forever diversifying, religious freedom and separation have become an ever graying area. As society’s majority belief systems flux, so does its interpretation of the clauses and their impact on the public schooling systems.
In 2009 it is still no clearer where the lines are drawn: with freedom from religion and freedom of religion? With every turnover in the Supreme Court, a new angle may be taken on either of the provisions of the First Amendment. It was written and ratified by men who wanted to preserve the freedom of the people; to live and worship by their own standards, but also maintain that others could do the same. Each Supreme Court case has given Americans a better understanding of what will be tolerated and what will not. The morals and beliefs of the majority in Congress will also have an effect on where lines are drawn. New legislation can not only change what is allowed, but also what is prohibited. New laws may also spur further Supreme Court interpretations. The question remains, where do we as a people draw the line between freedom of religion and freedom from religion; and which is weighted heavier in the balancing of the two?
Davies, A. (2006). In law more than life? Liberalism, reason, and religion in public schools; Rhetoric and Public Affairs. Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 437-460. Retrieved July 2, 2009 from ProQuest Library.
Sass, E. (2009). American educational history: A hypertext timeline. Retrieved July 5, 2009, from http://www.cloudnet.com/~edrbsass/educationhistorytimeline.html.
The Oyez Project, (1962) Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, retrieved July 13, 2009, from http://oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1961/1961_468.
The Oyez Project, (1990) Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, retrieved July 14, 2009, from http://oyez.org/cases/19801989/1989/1989_ 88_1597.
The Oyez Project, (2000) Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, retrieved July 13, 2009 from http://oyez.org/cases/1990-1999/1999/1999_99_62.
Webb, L. D., Metha, A., & Jordan, K. F. (2007). Foundations of American education, fifth edition. Pearson Education, Inc., New Jersey.