Religion in the Schools: Illinois Courts V. United States Supreme Court

By Scott, David W. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Religion in the Schools: Illinois Courts V. United States Supreme Court


Scott, David W., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The 1870 Illinois Constitution contained six principles related to religion, all of which reflected attitudes widely held in the nineteenth century: recognition of the blessings of God, the individual's right to religious liberty, no discrimination due to religious opinion, no preference among religious groups, exemption from taxation of property used for religious purposes, and no public funding for religious education or for churches or sectarian purposes.1 According to the sixth of these principles, neither the state or local public bodies could use public funds "in aid of any church or sectarian purpose" including support for church-controlled educational institutions. Entitled "Public Funds for Sectarian Purposes Forbidden," it was the first such provision to appear in an Illinois constitution.

The adoption of this provision in Illinois, as in other states, in the latter half of the nineteenth century was shaped by the controversies between Protestants and Catholics during the development of the public schools starting in the 1830s.2 A central position of the Catholic Church was to obtain public funding to help support its schools whereas the Protestant motivation was to contain the growth of such schools by keeping public money away from them.

A key event in the development of the public school system in Illinois was the passage in 1855 of the Free School Act. Localities were required to establish elementary schools and make them available to all children, and the state was to establish a new tax to help support such schools. Prior to the Free School Act, there was no prohibition on allocating the meager public money to schools sponsored by religious groups. The operating policy of the state from 1818 to 1855 was that so long as a church-sponsored school was not overtly sectarian in it program and would admit pupils of varying religious backgrounds, the states and the localities could support it with public funds.3

The effects of the 1855 Act came quickly. Many private schools ceased to exist or became part of the local public school system. However, the closing of the church-sponsored schools was not a problem for most Protestants. The whole common school movement in Illinois and elsewhere was infused with an evangelical or pietistic Protestant ethos and assumed that the newly created public schools would maintain moral and religious instruction. Along with public funding of church schools, Bible reading as central to religious activities in the public school was a basis of conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Advocates of the common school movement saw Bible reading as a way to neutralize the growing Catholic influence that accompanied increasing immigration. It was a way to Americanize the Catholic streams of immigration, and reading from the King James Version of the Bible was viewed as a high symbol of Americanization.4

The founders of the common school movement agreed further that the schools would have to be "non-sectarian." That is, they could not focus on the doctrine of any one sect because doing so would alienate the other sects. The Bible as the centerpiece of moral and religious instruction was thought to be common to all, so reading from it was thought to be "non-sectarian."

Using the Bible in the schools was a contentious issue at the convention that drafted the 1870 Constitution. Proposals to exclude to it and proposals to allow it were considered. Neither were adopted. After years of controversy, the Chicago Board of Education in 1874 eliminated Bible reading from the curriculum and from the opening exercises of the public schools. The basic cause for this change in policy was the shifting balance of groups due the heavy influx of Catholics and German Lutherans.5

Nineteenth-Century Illinois Supreme Court Cases

During the nineteenth century there were four major cases decided by Illinois Supreme Court under the 1870 Constitution dealing with religions and the public schools. …

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