The Fourth R: Conflicts over Religion in America's Public Schools

By Ravitch, Frank S. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Fourth R: Conflicts over Religion in America's Public Schools


Ravitch, Frank S., The Catholic Historical Review


The Fourth R: Conflicts over Religion in America's Public Schools. By Joan DelFattore. (New Haven:Yale University Press. 2004. Pp. x, 342. $29.95.)

The Fourth R is a significant contribution to the ongoing discourse and debate regarding religion and the public schools. In this important work, Joan DelFattore traces the often bitter history of disputes over religion in the public schools. Her writing style is entertaining and accessible, but this does not take away from the scholarly depth and breadth of the book. DelFattore points out that both sides in the culture wars, and specifically in the current debate over religion in the public schools, have tended to oversimplify the relevant issues and facts. Moreover, each side tends to demonize the other. This has led to a skewing in the public consciousness of the issues involved in cases involving religion in the public schools and to a tendency for members of the public to see issues through a specific lens. Thus for many people issues regarding religion in the public schools are connected to a broader social agenda, and as a result the factual and contextual differences between different issues are glossed over or ignored.

The debate over religious expression in the public schools is a debate about law and constitutional norms, but it is also a debate about history, society, power, cultural trends, and theology. DelFattore navigates this complex area adeptly, including a somewhat detailed discussion of the role anti-Catholicism played in the debate.The role of anti-Catholicism in debates over religion in the schools can be traced back to the pan-Protestant common schools in the early nineteenth century and the response of the predominantly Protestant culture to Catholic immigration. Of course, the Protestant-Catholic dynamic is simply one of a number of overlapping social dynamics involved in the broader debate that DelFattore writes about. I will focus mostly on this aspect of the book because of its relevance to this journal and because Delfattore's (as well as other authors') discussion of the role of anti-Catholicism in the church/state debate raises interesting questions about the current state of Supreme Court jurisprudence in this area.

A number of Supreme Court Justices have touted the role of original intent and the "traditions" of our nation in interpreting the religion clauses.This focus on tradition has commanded a majority or plurality of the Court in a number of decisions, most recently in Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005) (Plurality) (upholding the display of a Ten Commandments monument on the Texas state capitol grounds). In his dissenting opinion in a sister case, McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, 545 U.S. 844 (2005) (holding Ten Commandments display in county courthouses unconstitutional), Justice Scalia goes so far as to suggest that the traditions of our nation and the intent of the framers' would allow the government to favor monotheistic religious symbols. As DelFattore and a number of other authors have pointed out, one of the nation's strongest religious traditions in the public school context is, unfortunately, anti-Catholicism. In fact, given the "religious traditions" so happily touted by Justice Scalia, it is highly unlikely he would have been able to sit on any federal court, let alone the Supreme Court. …

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