60 Years of Controversy: What the Supreme Court Has Ruled on Religion in Public Schools-And Why

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, February 2008 | Go to article overview

60 Years of Controversy: What the Supreme Court Has Ruled on Religion in Public Schools-And Why


Boston, Rob, Church & State


The U.S. Supreme Court has been grappling with the role of religion in public education for six decades now. At the risk of oversimplifying, the high court has tended to strike down programs of schoolsponsored or coercive religious activity while protecting the right of individual students to engage in truly voluntary prayer and other religious activities in a non-disruptive fashion.

Here is a summary of the religion-in-public-schools rulings with excerpts from the majority opinions:

* McCollum v. Board of Education (1948): Ruling 8-1, the high court struck down a program of "released-time" religious instruction in Champaign, Ill., public schools because the clergy-led classes violated the separation of church and state.

Wrote Justice Hugo L. Black, "[T]he First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere. ... Here not only are the state's tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the state's compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State."

* Zorach v. Clauson (1952): Here the court, ruling 6-3, upheld a released-time program in New York City that allowed students to leave school during the day for religious instruction offsite.

Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "No one is forced to go to the religious classroom and no religious exercise or instruction is brought to the classrooms of the public schools. A student need not take religious instruction. He is left to his own desires as to the manner or time of his religious devotions, if any. ... If in fact coercion were used, if it were established that any one or more teachers were using their office to persuade or force students to take the religious instruction, a wholly different case would be presented."

* Engel v. Vitale (1962): In a 6-1 decision, the high court struck down a New York law that asked students to recite a prayer composed by education officials.

Justice Hugo L. Black wrote, "When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain. But the purposes underlying the Establishment Clause go much further than that. Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion. ... The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate."

* Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963): This 8-1 ruling struck down school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in Pennsylvania public schools. (Schernpp was combined with Murray v. Curlett, a Maryland case that raised similar issues.)

Observed Justice Tom Clark, "The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality."

* Epperson v. Arkansas (1968): In this unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court struck down a religiously motivated Arkansas statute that prohibited the teaching of evolution in the state's secondary schools and public universities. …

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