January 1

    Statute for Religious Freedom Enacted

    On this date in 1786, Thomas Jefferson‘s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom passed. The preamble is a sweeping indictment of state-dictated religion, noting that “false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time” have been maintained through the church-state alliance: “To compell a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical. … [O]ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

    The heart of the statute has been replicated in differing versions in most state constitutions. So important was the statute to Jefferson that he gave these instructions for the epitaph to be placed on his tombstone: “Thomas Jefferson/Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.” Omitting his two terms as president, Jefferson wrote these were the “testimonials that I have lived [and by which] I wish most to be remembered.”

    “[T]hat no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief: but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil

    —Jefferson, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, enacted Jan. 16, 1786

    Ed Schempp

    Ed Schempp

    On this date in 1908, Ed Schempp was born. (He was actually born on Feb. 29, a date this software wants to recognize as March 1.) He and his son Ellery launched the landmark lawsuit Abington School District v. Schempp to contest a Pennsylvania law mandating daily bible readings in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court issued an 8-1 ruling in 1963 barring mandatory bible reading in public schools, which followed its 1962 decision barring prayer. “In the relationship between man and religion, the state is firmly committed to the position of neutrality,” Justice Tom Clark wrote for the majority. The only dissent was from Justice Potter Stewart, who wanted the case remanded to the lower courts.

    A native Philadelphian, Schempp took over his father’s hardware business as a young man and later worked in electronics. He was active in Unitarianism and peace groups. He was a longtime FFRF member and honorary officer and was featured in FFRF’s 1988 film “Champions of the First Amendment.” He and his wife of 69 years, Sydney, had three children. D. 2003.

    “Freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. … Why don’t we celebrate living, instead of worrying about damnation and sin?”

    —Schempp, acceptance speech as 1996 Humanist of the Year, awarded by the American Humanist Association
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Brent Nicastro

    McCollum v. Board of Education Decision (Anniversary)

    McCollum v. Board of Education Decision (Anniversary)

    On this date in 1948, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, McCollum v. Board of Education, barring religious instruction in public schools, was handed down, with a vote of 8 to 1. The lone dissent was from Justice Stanley Forman Reed, who objected to the breadth of the majority’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause.

    The case was brought by Vashti McCollum (pictured), a mother in Champaign, Ill., on behalf of her son, Jim. In her enduring 1951 book about the challenge, “One Woman’s Fight,” she described how her son was punished by teachers and teased by students for not taking part in religious instruction illegally taught in his public school.

    Although she lost at the first two court levels and was treated as “a very unpopular woman,” Vashti did not give up. Her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court resulted in a stunning victory for separation of church and state, which is still the prevailing precedent in public school law today. McCollum was an FFRF honorary board member. She died at age 93 in 2006.

    “Separation means separation, not something less. Jefferson’s metaphor in describing the relation between Church and State speaks of a ‘wall of separation,’ not a fine line easily overstepped. The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny. In no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools, to avoid confusing, not to say fusing, what the Constitution sought to keep strictly apart.”

    —Justice Felix Frankfurter, concurrence, McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 212 (1948)

    Weiss v. District Board

    Weiss v. District Board

    In 1886, Catholic parents in Edgerton, Wis., protested the reading of the King James Bible during opening exercises in village schools. They considered the Douay version the only correct translation. When the school board refused to change, they sued on the grounds that daily Protestant readings contradicted Sec. 3, Article X of the Wisconsin Constitution that forbid sectarian instruction in the public schools.

    The circuit court ruled in 1888 that the readings were not sectarian because both translations were of the same work. The parents appealed to the state Supreme Court. On March 18, 1890, it overruled the circuit court, concluding that bible reading constituted sectarian instruction and illegally united the functions of church and state. 

    “There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.”

    —Justice H.S. Orton, concurring opinion in Weiss v. District Board (March 18, 1890)

    Wallace v. Jaffree

    Wallace v. Jaffree

    On this date in 1985, Wallace v. Jaffree was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, forbidding school officials to direct “silent prayer” and meditation for the purpose of prayer in public schools.

    FFRF photo: Alabama plaintiff Ishmael Jaffree.

    “Just as the right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of a broader concept of individual freedom of mind, so also the individual’s freedom to choose his own creed is the counterpart of his right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority.
    “At one time it was thought that this right merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Mohammedism or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.”

    —Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority, Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (June 4, 1985)

    Engel v. Vitale

    Engel v. Vitale

    On this date in 1962, the landmark Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale declaring even nondenominational school prayer to be unconstitutional was handed down with a decision of 6 to 1.

    In 1951, the New York State Board of Regents had approved a short, “nondenominational” prayer which they offered to school districts for voluntary classroom use, believing that a connection to the nation’s “spiritual heritage” could help instill civic values and fight communism. The prayer read, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.”

    The Union Free School District No. 9 in New Hyde Park on Long Island directed principals to have this prayer “said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of the school day.” A group of parents, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Jewish and Ethical Culture groups, sued the district in 1960. The plaintiffs were Steven and Thelma Engel, Daniel and Ruth Lichtenstein, Monroe and Julia Lerner, Lawrence and Frances Roth and Leonore Lyons. William Vitale Jr. was the school board president. 

    The law was upheld in the state courts but after arguments on April 3, 1962, the Supreme Court overturned the law, with only Justice Potter Stewart dissenting, and established a major precedent in the limiting of prayer in schools.

    “When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”

    Majority decision, written by Justice Hugo Black

    Civil Rights Act Enacted

    Civil Rights Act Enacted

    On this date in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson after it passed the Senate by a vote of 73–27 and the House by 289–126. It barred discrimination based on race, religion, color or national origin.

    “An act to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States of America to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations …”

    14th Amendment Adopted

    14th Amendment Adopted

    On this date in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was formally adopted after certification by Secretary of State William Seward. It reads, in part: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The amendment, as gradually applied by the Supreme Court, has incorporated the Bill of Rights and constitutional rights, including the right to be free from state-fostered religion, to all citizens.

Freedom From Religion Foundation