D uring the past two decades there has been a marked tendency in the United States to adjudicate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in the area of the public schools.
Almost twenty years have passed since the unprecedented McCollum case, which was in effect the first of four historic decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court relative to religion in the public schools. That the Court's most far-reaching decisions on church and state should have to do with the public schools has been noted as both historically appropriate and judicially significant. Some understanding of the historical background of the American public school and its relationship to the American tradition of church and state is essential if "the great debate" over religion in the public schools is to be culturally and constitutionally meaningful to Americans today.
To begin with, the American public school is as historically unique as the American tradition of church and state. Together they represent the two great contributions of the United States to civilization. Founded as a secular state, the United States was the first nation in history constitutionally to prohibit the establishment of religion, in general or particular, and to guarantee the free exercise of religion. While this view of church and state has been frequently referred to as the greatest single concept America has contributed to civilization, the public school has been called by many the supreme achievement of American democracy and the greatest institution produced by American civilization.
It must be remembered, however, that only gradually did the American tradition of church and state, as embodied in the First Amendment, and the American public school, as it developed after the middle of the nineteenth century, come to represent a