Freedom of Religion & Public Education
As the founding fathers were writing the Constitution, they believed that government needed to be secular in order to keep the peace between religious factions, and they went to great lengths to create a state without any religious aspirations. In accordance with this goal, as public education was spread through the nation, a law was passed to prohibit the use of public funds to support sectarian schools. Rather than teach religion, it became the task of schools to create good Americans. Over the course of the 20th century, a number of Supreme Court cases refined the relationship between public education and religious freedom. The public debate over this relationship continues today.
Keywords Common School; Democracy; Horace Mann; Proselytize; Public Education; Religion; Sectarian; Secular; Secularism; Secular Humanism; Separation of Church and State; Supreme Court
Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion is the right to worship as one pleases, the right to choose (or not choose) a religion without fear of reprisal from government. As democracy spreads across the world, many evolving countries are incorporating this right into their government's foundation. Davis (2006) recognizes that, "the number of democracies worldwide has more than tripled (to 120) in the last 30 years…most democracies today are "liberal" democracies, which means that fundamental rights or liberties of the citizens are built into the legal structure of the regime" (Davis, 2006, para. 1). With the spread of democracy around the world, freedom of religion is becoming a basic human right.
The principle of freedom of religion is not new. Some of the first written evidence mankind has of this ideal appears on the Cyrus Cylinder, dated to around 539 BC. Cyrus, King of the Persian Kingdom, liberated Babylon from Nabonidus, by walking into the city and taking it. He wrote, "I took great care to peacefully (protect) the city of Babylon and its cult places. (And) as for the citizens of Babylon, whom Nabonidus had made subservient in a manner totally unsuited to them against the will of the gods, I released them from their weariness and loosened their burden" (Chavalas, 2006, para. 5). As Cyrus was taking over the famed city, he did so with toleration of its inhabitants and their holy places. This was done in order to keep peace with the citizens of Babylon.
American founding fathers in the 18th century addressed freedom of religion in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Within the outline for a new government, placing Freedom of Religion first showed how important the founding fathers knew this idea to be. The First Amendment says, in part:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"
The Constitution without Religion
Religion played a central role in early American settlers' lives. By the time the Constitution was being written, there were many different Christian sects already well established in the new world. Some colonists came to American for religious freedom, but many more came for commercial opportunities and to establish profitable plantations and businesses for their benefactors back in England and continued to adhere to their own versions of Christianity.
As Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton et al. were writing the Constitution, they knew they could not get the widely varying sects in each colony to agree on which doctrine was the most proper and suited to govern all the inhabitants of the country. Forming a government based on one religion would be divisive at a time when the founders were trying to unite a nation together, so they solidly rejected the idea of a Christian state. They sought instead to create laws providing that the property and health of citizens not be hindered by fraud or violence and left religion out of it. They saw government as needing to be non-secular in order to keep the peace and they went to great lengths to create a state without any religious aspirations. The new government "would not serve the glory of God; it would merely preside over a commercial republic, an individualistic and competitive America preoccupied with private rights and personal autonomy" (Kramnic & Moore, 1996, p. 86).
Education in Early America
Prior to the establishment of the United States, the Constitution and the federal government, education in Colonial America was designed to create and sustain a Christian civilization. In the 1640's, Massachusetts and Virginia passed laws that required children receive some education. Massachusetts fared better than Virginia in this endeavor, as the Puritans placed a strong emphasis on learning. For more than 100 years, beginning around 1690, most school learning was done using the New England Primer, a textbook created by the Puritans, whose "great theme was God and our relationship to Him" (Nord, 1995, p. 65). The main purpose to sending children to school during this time was to learn their parents' and community's religious doctrine.
Before the Civil War, schoolbooks accepted Christian accounts of the world almost certainly. Slowly, the movement for tax supported "common schools" began. Common schools were non-sectarian in design and begun for a variety of reasons. "Some scholars see the movement as a natural extension of democracy and liberalism…" (Nord, 1995, p. 71). It was an effort to create skilled workers in order to ensure America's economic status worldwide, or possibly to "accept the common values of order and discipline within a society" (Nord, 1995, p. 71). Public common schools were supported by tax dollars and educating children became mandatory in America.
Although they professed to be, common schools were not entirely without religion. Horace Mann, a Protestant, propagated the idea of a common school education stressing only those convictions upon which 'men of goodwill' agreed. The bible was to speak for itself without any of the nuances in Christianity that caused division along sectarian lines. At first, many Protestants protested this schooling idea. They felt their religion should be a central part of the education process. However, they began to rally around the idea as more Roman Catholics immigrated to America. Opinion shifted to be that children are better off in a school where the Bible is not interpreted than being educated by or under strict guidance of a Roman Catholic priest. Catholics revolted against this idea and created a huge parochial system of education, which still exists today. Then, because tax dollars supported common schools, Catholics argued for tax dollars to support their schools as well.
In 1875, Congress fell only a few votes shy of passing a constitutional amendment prohibiting the use of all public funds for sectarian education. Congress did, however, pass a law in 1876 stating all new member-states must provide means for creating public schools free from sectarian control. During this period, "many states adopted constitutional amendments prohibiting the use of state funds for sectarian schools" (Nord, 1995, p. 73).
Education without Religion
The largest motivational factor for outlawing sectarian schools, according to constitutional scholar Douglas Laycock, was "trace(ed back) not to any careful deliberations about constitutional principles of the proper relations of church and state. Rather it traces to vigorous 19th century anti-Catholicism and nativ(e) reaction to Catholic immigration" (as cited in Nord, 1995, p. 73). In order to keep the peace, educators at the time came to the same conclusion the founding fathers had: eliminate what is discordant. Take religion out of everyday classrooms and find another central purpose for educating youth. Rather than teach religion, it became the task of schools to create good Americans.
Schools began espousing ideas about America and Americanism rather than religion. Textbooks presented America as being the most prosperous, successful country in the world. This idea became more important as the country was flooded with immigrants. Public schools became "cultural factories of Americanization, transforming the raw material of foreign cultures into good American citizens" (Nord, 1995, p. 75). During this time, America's economy continued to grow and the middle class took more opportunity to shape and develop what was taught in schools. A major reason high school became popular was that businesses required a better-trained work force. In 1917, Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act, the first act encouraging and funding vocational education.
First Supreme Court Cases
During the ensuing years, the Supreme Court viewed its role in public education as furthering the Jeffersonian principle of creating a "wall" between church and state....
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