Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court: An Interview with Church-State Scholar Ronald B. Flowers

Church & State, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court: An Interview with Church-State Scholar Ronald B. Flowers


Ronald B. Flowers is John F. Weatherly Emeritus Professor of Religion at Texas Christian University. He taught at the Fort Worth school for 37 years and was chair of the Religion Department for nine years. He is the author of several books on religious liberty law.

Flowers, a former Americans United trustee, has just finished a new book, with Steven K. Green and Melissa Rogers, entitled Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court (Baylor University Press, 1202 pp., $69.95). Intended primarily as a textbook for college classes, it includes the texts of the high court's religious liberty decisions, as well as scholarly commentary. (A longer version of this interview may be read online at www.au.org.)

Q: When did you first get interested in the Supreme Court and its stand on church-state issues?

A: I got interested in this subject when I was in graduate school at the School of Religion at the University of Iowa. My field of study for the Ph.D. was American religious history. I took a course in that subject from Dr. Sidney E. Mead. He had gotten the idea from reading an article that a good way to teach American religious history was to have students read church-state decisions of the Supreme Court. I had never read a Court opinion. I had the stereotypical view that they would read like Aunt Minnie's last will and testament or like an insurance policy. But, when I read three or four cases under his guidance, I found that they read like real English and were quite interesting. I have been reading them ever since.

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Q: The Religious Right claims that our public schools are "godless" or hostile to religion in schools. What has the Court really said about prayer and worship in public schools?

A: Although the Court has declared itself on this subject in a number of cases, I believe that Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963) is most important of all and can be used to summarize the Court's decisions on the subject.

The Court has said that prayer in the public schools that is state required or state mandated through law is a violation of the Establishment Clause. But, in Schempp, it went out of its way to say that the teaching of religion, so long as it is done in an objective, non-proselytizing way, is not only constitutionally permissible, but a good idea. The Court recognized that an education would not be complete without recognizing the role religion has played in people's lives, for good or ill, and that the public schools would be negligent if they did not include it in their academic instruction.

The Court did not explicitly say, but certainly implied, that prayer by individual students, so long as it was completely voluntary, i.e., not encouraged or guided by public school personnel, and so long as it was not disruptive of the educational process, was all right.

Putting on my "theological hat"--I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)--I must say that I am amazed that the leaders of the Religious Right (and many other non-conservative religious leaders) clamor for prayer in the public schools. For the public schools to have prayer in the way these people seem to want, it would mean that the government was doing one of the primary functions of the churches.

Why cannot they see that the more the government does the work of the churches, the more the churches will be marginalized? The more the government does the work of the churches--in prayer in public places and in subsidizing faith-based charities--the less the churches will be the vibrant, important institutions in society that I assume all Christians want them to be.

Q. It is distressing that so many Americans misunderstand the Court's church-state rulings and think the justices are hostile to Christianity. What can we do about that?

A: Education! This is why organizations like Americans United and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (these two are the major players on the separationist side) are so important. …

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