Congress Shall Make No Law (November 2002)

“In the relationship between man and religion, the state is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.” Thus ruled Associate Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark in 1963. Yet today the American nation continues to struggle to eliminate religious propaganda from the public schools that constitute the very basis of our democracy. The Bill of Rights, that hallowed cornerstone of the Constitution, forbids the governmental creation of an established church in its First, oft-quoted, Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” For over 200 years, the Constitution itself, reinforced unequivocally by the interpretations of justices like Clark, has forbidden the connection of any instrument of government in the United States to an established church.

Yet inexplicably, religion has maintained a strong presence in the nation’s public schools, the very institutions that are, ostensibly, the foundation of our democratic society. In Michigan, only a recent administrative decision has halted the distribution of Gideon Bibles to the students at a local elementary school; in Tennessee, the practice continues. Debates over school prayer and creationism rage nationwide, with the separation of church and state under fire on a regular basis. Only in 1987 did the Supreme Court overturn a Louisiana statute requiring that bible-based creation science be taught alongside evolution; less than five years earlier, the Court ruled in McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education that Act 590, the “Balanced Treatment for Creation Science and Evolution Science Act,” allotting equal time to lessons of creationism and evolution, was unconstitutional. Clashes of creationists with evolutionists, just one manifestation of efforts to incorporate religious views into school curricula, have prompted consideration of antievolution legislation in states from Washington to Georgia. Other attempts to mingle religion with public schooling are equally widespread. Students nationwide pledge allegiance to a nation “under God” every morning, and schools’ attempts at establishing a prayer before football games or graduation ceremonies periodically make the news.

The public school is the common denominator of the many, the shared cultural background of a diverse nation that embraces Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Zoroastrians, Baptists and Mormons. The United States is perhaps one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, with its 80 million Protestants divided among some four dozen disparate churches and the rest of the population split among Roman Catholicism (28% of the population), Judaism (2%), a host of other faiths (4%) and agnosticism or undeclared religious affiliation (10%). In such an environment, how could anyone in good conscience prescribe a religious activity that would inevitably favor one creed above another, whether implicitly or explicitly, even if the Constitution did not rule out the legality of such an undertaking altogether?

Some proponents of school religion have argued that acceptance of a religious activity by a majority of students constitutes endorsement of its application to the school community. But who would argue the parallel thesis that a statement of, say, white supremacy is acceptable in a district whose majority is Caucasian? Majority rule does not include the dispensation to trample minority rights, as the ACLU has repeatedly pointed out. There is simply no excuse for the alienation of any member of the school community via the confusion of public education with spiritual inculcation.

For a growing number of atheist and agnostics in this free and modern society, any religious activity, nondenominational as it may attempt to be, contradicts their personal creed. To penalize an individual for his or her atheism would be just as flagrant an infringement of the First Amendment as any persecution for another’s Catholicism or Hinduism. During the time of the Inquisition or in Puritan Salem, atheism would have been grounds for a gruesome execution; today’s increasingly scientific and secular society recognizes atheism as a creed as valid as any other. Any public school engaging in religious activity is thereby infringing upon the rights of its atheist population to reject that very religion. Wrote Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson in 1952, “The day that this country ceases to be free for irreligion, it will cease to be free for religion.”

The most compelling reason, however, that religion does not belong in our public schools is not the discomfort that religious proselytism would pose for atheists, Shiites, or Mennonites, but the simple fact that the Constitution, along with a slew of Supreme Court cases, forbids it. The First Amendment explicitly bars the involvement of the state in religious affairs, notably in the establishment of an official church. Time and again in the 20th century, the Supreme Court has ruled manifestations of religion in public schools unconstitutional. In 1962, justices ruled in Engel v. Vitale that New York’s daily class prayer violated the First Amendment. The following year, the Court ruled in Abington Township School District v. Schempp that Pennsylvania could not compel public school students to read passages from the bible as mandated by a 1949 law. Five years later, the Epperson v. Arkansas decision struck down a measure forbidding the teaching of evolution. In the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case, Justice Brennan wrote explicitly:
“The Court has been particularly vigilant in monitoring compliance with the Establishment Clause in elementary and secondary schools. Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.”

Clearly, then, a multitude of court cases and the words of the Constitution itself reinforce the necessity of keeping religion from permeating the mind-shaping environment of the public schools. Even without these legal barriers to the inclusion of religion in public school activities, the fact remains that such an ecclesiastical emphasis would contradict the very philosophy of a free society. Just as no student should face discrimination for his or her ethnicity or gender, none should suffer through the endorsement–implied or explicit–of any religion whatsoever, however nonsectarian or locally popular, in the very public schools that parents entrust with the education of their impressionable children.

Neither the Constitution nor conscience can accept the association of religion and public education. In a diverse nation that prides itself on religious and other freedoms, established religion has no place in the public schools. Thankfully, the First Amendment assures us that it never will.

Freedom From Religion Foundation