Protecting the 'Inviolable Citadel of the Heart': The Supreme Court's Decisions on Religion and Public Schools

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Protecting the 'Inviolable Citadel of the Heart': The Supreme Court's Decisions on Religion and Public Schools


Boston, Rob, Church & State


The U.S. Supreme Court's rulings on religion and public education have been among its most controversial. Since the McCollum v. Board of Education verdict in 1948, the high court has rendered only nine opinions on the role of faith in the classroom.

Religious Right groups often a accuse the high court of manifesting hostility toward religion, In fact, the justices have often gone out of their way to emphasize that church-state separation ensures the independence and integrity of religion and protects the right of all Americans to make their own decisions about religion free of government mandate.

Here is a summary of the cases with excerpts from the majority opinions:

* McCollum v. Board of Education (1948): The high court, in an 8-1 decision, declared unconstitutional a released-time program in Champaign, Ill., that brought clergy and others into the public schools to offer sectarian religious instruction.

Justice Hugo L. Black wrote: "To hold that a state cannot consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments utilize its public school system to aid any or all religious faiths or sects in the dissemination of their doctrines and ideas does not, as counsel urge, manifest a governmental hostility to religion or religious teachings. A manifestation of such hostility would be at war with our national tradition as embodied in the First Amendment's quarantee of the free exercise of religion. For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere. Or, as we said in the [1947] Everson case, the First Amendment has erected a wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable."

* Zorach v. Clauson (1952): The court, by a 6-3 vote, upheld a released-time program in New York City that allowed students to leave the public schools during the day for religious training off-site.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote: "Government may not finance religious groups nor undertake religious instruction nor blend secular and sectarian education nor use secular institutions to force one or some religion on any person. But we find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence."

* Engel v. Vitale (1962): In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court decided that state-sponsored recitation of the "Regents Prayer" by students enrolled at the New Hyde Park, N.Y., School District was unconstitutional.

Justice Hugo L. Black wrote: "When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular form of religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain. But the purpose underlying the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment] go much further than that. Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.... The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its `unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate."

* Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963): By a 7-1 vote, the high court struck down laws in Pennsylvania and Maryland requiring public school students to recite the Lord's Prayer and read Bible passages every day.

Justice Tom. C. Clark wrote: "The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. …

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