The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine

The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine

The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine

The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine

Excerpt

On June 17, 1963, the United States Supreme Court announced its decisions in Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett, companion cases involving the constitutionality of Bible reading in public schools. The outcomes of both cases were eagerly anticipated. Only a year earlier, the Court had struck down, 8-1, a New York law that had required the daily recitation of a prayer in public schools. Reaction to the “Regent’s Prayer” case (Engel v. Vitale) had been swift and decidedly negative. Religious leaders—ranging from Cardinal Francis Spellman and Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike to evangelist Billy Graham—had condemned the ruling. “God pity our country when we can no longer appeal to God for help,” Graham declared. Politicians joined in as well. North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, a self-described constitutional expert who would later gain fame during the Watergate hearings, insisted that “the Supreme Court has made God unconstitutional.” Despite the widespread public condemnation of Engel, the justices did not retreat. By the same 8-1 margin, they found that readings from the Bible and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, conducted as part of daily opening exercises, violated religious neutrality as required by the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The public outcry over the Schempp and Murray decisions was even louder than the one over Engel. Because Engel had involved a prayer drafted by a state agency, some religious leaders were ambivalent about the outcome. In contrast, Schempp and Murray involved informal practices of prayer and Bible reading that were common throughout the nation’s public schools. Politicians and religious conservatives roundly condemned the decisions, with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond calling the holdings “another major triumph of secularism and atheism which are bent on throwing God completely out of our national life.” Billy Graham claimed that the decisions outlawed practices that stretched back to the time of the Pilgrims, and Alabama Governor George Wallace, repeating an earlier act of defiance, challenged the justices to stop him from going into the schools and reading from the Bible to students.

The public interest in the cases reached a magnitude rarely seen in American constitutional history. Only the desegregation holding in Brown v. Board of . . .

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