Americans would revolt if the government forced them to join a
state-established church. They guard too fiercely their liberty of
conscience, guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Yet when some parents choose not to submit their children to the
government-operated school system - whose curriculum and culture
embody beliefs and values with which they disagree - they still must
pay taxes to support the system. Even then, they often face
We contend that the conduct of schooling in the United States
should be determined by the rights of conscience of parents, in
accord with the democratic nature of our society and our
confessional pluralism. Parents who choose not to send their
children to public schools should not be subject to harassment. Nor
should they be forced to support the state system as well as their
preferred educational arrangement.
Contrary to popular belief, the US has never had one universally
accepted system of public education. American history is full of
dissenters who acted on conscience - and faced opposition for it.
In the mid-19th century, Americans created what was then called
the "common school." Allegedly free of the evils of sectarian
educational institutions, the common school, supported by mandatory
taxation, was touted as the bastion of republicanism, guarantor of
liberty, and avenue of equal opportunity for all Americans.
Advocates claimed it would abolish crime and poverty, and establish
morality on a universal scale.
As was the case with prior government-established ecclesiastical
institutions in Europe and early America, for example,
Congregationalism in Connecticut and Anglicanism in Virginia, the
"inclusive" common school was not common to all. Like its
predecessors, it bred dissent.
The leading educational dissenters in the 19th century were Roman
Catholics. Their religious conscience clashed with the
"nonsectarianism" of the common school, which in reality was a form
of Unitarian pan-Protestantism. At considerable sacrifice, and
despite their poverty, Catholics established their own schools and
were confronted by opposition that sometimes turned violent.
As the 19th century progressed, others, most notably German
Lutherans, joined Catholics in their conscience-based dissent from
state-sanctioned educational orthodoxy. As had been the case with
the established churches, those advocating the state system of
education attempted to quell the "uprising" by regulating the
In the 1960s, new groups joined the ranks of dissenters. A
minority of evangelical Protestants were outraged by Supreme Court
declarations that state-sanctioned prayer and devotional Bible
reading violated the "no establishment" clause of the First