The Separation of Church and State

By Darien A. McWhirter | Go to book overview
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Education, Conscience, and Religion


Before the 1920s, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting liberties, but was not very specific concerning what these liberties were. In the 1920s the Court had to face two decisions that helped to define which liberties were protected. Both cases involved the right to receive an education.


The 1923 case of Meyer v. Nebraska involved laws, which had been passed in a number of states during and soon after World War I, that made it illegal to teach the German language to children below a specific age. The Nebraska law made it illegal to teach German or any other modern language before the ninth grade. Mr. Meyer was convicted of teaching German to 10-year-old children who were attending a private school, the Zion Parochial School, and he appealed his conviction under Nebraska law to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The question before the Court was whether or not one of the "liberties" protected by the Fourteenth Amendment was the liberty to learn. Does the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee to people the right to study subjects such as the modern foreign languages? The Court said that it did. Justice McReynolds, writing for the Court, responded to Nebraska's argument that children should learn English before they attempt to learn other languages by saying:

That the State may do much, go very far, indeed, in order to improve the quality of its citizens, physically, mentally and morally, is clear; but the individual has certain fundamental rights which must be respected. The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other


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The Separation of Church and State


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