Required Reading: Kicking God Out of Public Schools

We have looked recently at the effects on Fundamentalist America of the US Supreme Court’s rulings in 1962 and 1963.  These decisions ruled against the use of state-sponsored prayer and school-led religious devotions and Bible reading in public schools.  As any observer of Fundamentalist America is aware, many conservatives pinpoint these events as the date when God was “kicked out” of American public schoolsAs we’ve noted, the historical reality was much more complex.

Happily, those interested in these questions now have a promising new book to help them muddle through the mishmash of Constitutional, cultural, educational, and devotional questions raised by this thorny issue.  At Religion & Politics, Michael Waggoner has offered a thoughtful review of Steven Green’s newish The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Waggoner, a scholar of higher education at the University of Northern Iowa and editor of the academic journal Religion and Education, concludes that the most significant contribution of Green’s book is that it moves the discussion away from the 1960s and back to their proper arena: the 1860s.  As Waggoner notes,

“while many Americans believed in 1962—and continue to believe today—that the crisis over the proper relationship between religion and public education arose full blown in the chambers of the Supreme Court, in fact these changes were a century in the making.”

In Green’s telling, the significant struggle over the role of religion and public education took place in the second half of the 19th century.  The linchpin, Green argues in his third chapter, was not only the US Supreme Court’s 1962’s Engel and 1963’s Schempp rulings, but the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1870 Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor.*  In that case, the culmination of Cincinnati’s angry “Bible Wars,” the school board successfully defended its decision to remove the reading of the King James Bible from public schools.  The first plaintiffs, John D. Minor and a group of concerned citizens, complained that such a removal was illegal, impractical, and immoral.  One of their reasons was that “large numbers [of city school children] receive no religious instruction or knowledge of the Holy Bible, except that communicated as aforesaid in said schools.”

As Green argues, this case and the cultural controversies that accompanied it nationwide laid the groundwork for the Court decisions of the 1960s.  The “culture wars” of the 1860s and 70s demonstrated the nation’s growing unease with traditional Protestant domination of public life.  Minor’s argument that children would not learn about the Bible if not in public schools did not win over the justices of the Ohio Supreme Court.  Not only that, as Green details, activists who sought to marshal the forces of traditionalism soon realized they faced a fundamentally different political and cultural environment.  A coalition of Protestant ministers first proposed a “Christian Amendment.”  They hoped to answer Cincinnati’s anti-Bible ordinance with a change to the US Constitution clarifying the government’s role in promoting religion.  More successful was the Blaine Amendment.  Largely a move to isolate Catholic schools, Congressman James Blaine proposed an amendment that would clarify: public funds must never support religious schools.

Green’s book will not likely satisfy the critics who insist that God was kicked out of public schools in the 1960s.  But for those of us hoping to understand the long cultural conversation about the changing role of religion in the public square, Green’s book is a great new resource.

* A nerdy detail: as with “Schempp” and “Engel,” this case is usually incorrectly described as Minor v. Board of Education.  That was indeed the name of the original 1869 Cincinnati case that sought to get the Bible back into Cincinatti schools.  However, the Ohio Supreme Court case in 1870 was actually an appeal by the Board of Education against John Minor, thus Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor.

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