Bible Reading in Public Schools, History of before and after Abington School District v. Schempp

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America, there was homogeneity among Americans in that the majority were Protestant Christians, albeit of varied denominations. Due to the variety of denominations that existed, and due to the history of religious oppression that led many to come to America, it was generally accepted that the State could not establish one denomination as a state church. Rather, all denominations should be allowed to worship as they chose. However, due to the religious homogeneity among the majority of Americans, there existed a widely held belief that America was a Christian nation and the precepts of Protestant Christianity, as taught by the Bible, were the basis of good citizenship and good government. Thus, there should be a separation of church and state, but a separation of religion (read Protestant Christianity) and state was neither necessary nor desirable.

Given the above belief and the belief that society had an obligation to inculcate its young with proper moral precepts and to teach them to be good citizens, it made sense that they be exposed to Christian precepts in school. As a result, prior to Abington School District v. Schempp, it was generally believed that the Bible could and should be read in public schools, as long as the passages were read without any comment or discussion. Thus, in the period before Schempp, there was a widespread practice of Bible reading in the public schools. Specifically, in most instances several passages of the Bible were read by the teachers to their students or, in modern times, over the public address system by a teacher or student. In fact, in 1950 the reading of the Bible was required by thirteen states and permitted in twenty-five other states. Further, in a survey conducted in 1968, 48 percent of the respondent teachers teaching before 1962 reported that Bible selections were read in their classrooms on a daily to less than weekly basis.

The Bible that was often used for Bible reading was the King James version of the Bible, a version used by many Protestants of varying denominations, but not by Catholics, Jews, or others of different religious faiths. The reason that the Bible passages were to be read without comment was to avoid the teaching of any particular religion. It was believed that the reading of the Bible imparted general moral precepts rather than the precepts of any particular religion.

In the last three quarters of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, there raged an episodic conflict between Catholics and Protestants in many areas, including the teaching of Protestant precepts in public schools. Nevertheless, the courts, with few exceptions, upheld the reading of the Bible in the schools if the Bible was read without comment or note and if pupils who desired to avoid the reading could do so. Most held that the reading was constitutional because it was not a teaching of sectarian tenets and doctrines. Although the court holdings appear to be somewhat contradictory, they can be understood if one remembers the mindset prevailing at the time. As one commentator explains, ‘‘The Protestant position that emerged by the mid-nineteenth century was that Protestants could participate in politics and teach their religion in the schools, but that Catholics could not . . . . The key step in the Protestant argument was this: Protestants tended to assume that, whereas Catholics acted as part of a church, Protestants acted in diverse sects as individuals . . . . Thus, Catholic instruction or political action violated separation [of church and state], because it was the work of an authoritarian church, but Protestant instruction and political action did not violate separation, because it was the work of free individuals.’’

A few courts disagreed with this generally held view and found Bible reading in public schools to violate either the federal or a state constitution. For example, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found that the reading of the Bible, without comment, at certain times in public schools, violated the Wisconsin Constitution because such was sectarian instruction. It was sectarian instruction because each sect, with few exceptions, bases its peculiar doctrines upon some portion of the Bible, the reading of which tends to inculcate those doctrines (State ex rel. Weiss v. District Board of School Dist. No. 8 of City of Edgerton, 44 N.W. 967 [Wis. 1890]).

In the mid-twentieth century, the acceptance of the intertwining of religion and the state began to come undone. In 1947, the Supreme Court handed down the significant establishment clause decision of Everson v. Board of Education. In that case, the Supreme Court purported to endorse a strict doctrine of separation of church and state when it stated that ‘‘[n] either a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another . . . . Neither a state nor the Federal government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State.’’’ Ironically, although all of the justices concurred in the above statement, five members of the Court went on to hold that New Jersey’s program of providing transportation services for non–public school children did not violate the establishment clause.

In 1963, in the Abington School District v. Schempp case, the Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether Bible reading in the public schools, as it was currently practiced, violated the establishment clause. The Court found that it did. The Schempp case involved two separate cases. The first case came from Pennsylvania where a 1959 statute required the reading of ten Bible verses, without comment, at the opening of each public school, on each school day. At the written request of a parent or guardian, however, a child could be excused from such reading. The Schempps were members of the Unitarian Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and two of their children attended Abington High School where such Bible reading took place. Although the school only provided copies of the King James Bible, the student doing the reading could choose any passages he liked. Thus, readings had been done from the King James, the Douay (Catholic version), and the Revised Standard versions of the Bible as well as the Jewish Holy Scriptures. In spite of the inclusiveness of the Bible readings, the Schempps brought suit to enjoin enforcement of the statute because specific religious doctrines, gleaned by a literal reading of the Bible, were contrary to their religious beliefs. Further, although the children could be excused from the reading, their father did not do this because he believed that doing so would adversely affect the relationship between the children and their classmates and teachers.

The second case in Schempp came to the Supreme Court from Maryland where the City of Baltimore had adopted a rule providing for the reading, without comment, of a chapter in the Holy Bible and/or a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Baltimore schools. The Bible used was the King James version. The Murrays, a mother and son, were atheists who sought to have the rule rescinded because it was a threat to their religious beliefs in that it placed a premium on belief as opposed to nonbelief. Further, they felt that the Baltimore rule as practiced indicated a belief that God was the source of all moral and spiritual values, and thus such values were religious values. Such a belief rendered Petitioners’ beliefs suspect and promoted doubt as to Petitioners’ morality and good citizenship.

The Supreme Court struck down both the Pennsylvania statute and the Baltimore rule as violating the establishment clause. In doing so it recognized that religion was closely identified with American history and government; however, it contended that religious freedom was likewise embedded in American life. It went on to reaffirm its holding in Everson v. Board of Education, that the object of the First Amendment’s establishment clause was ‘‘to create a complete and permanent separation of the spheres of religious activity and civil authority by comprehensively forbidding every form of public aid or support for religion’’ (Everson, 330 U.S., at 31–32). However, the establishment clause, together with the free exercise clause, mandated that a state be neutral in its relations with religious believers and nonbelievers. Thus, a state can neither favor nor disfavor religions. In the instant case, the Court found that the Bible readings were a religious ceremony. Thus, the exercises and the law requiring them violated the establishment clause. The readings were a religious ceremony because, even if the purpose of the exercise was to promote moral values, the tool used was the Bible and the Bible is an instrument of religion.

After Schempp was handed down, the schools in large part abided by the Court’s decision. In a survey conducted in 1968 it was found that, with the exception of the South, the practice of Bible reading and prayer in public elementary schools had largely disappeared by the academic year 1964–65. Thus, a fairly entrenched practice gave way with surprising swiftness.

Like the schools, the lower courts followed the dictates of the Supreme Court and invalidated any reading of the Bible to the student body at the behest of the school or school district. Many schools, students, and parents, however, wanted the children to have some religious instruction and/or exposure to the Bible. The question then became how could children learn about the Bible without running afoul of the establishment clause. In some jurisdictions the schools allowed Bible study classes to be conducted on school grounds as part of the school curriculum. Such classes were found to be unconstitutional if they taught the Bible as religious truth. However, a Bible study class was permissible under the establishment clause if the course was secular in nature, intent, and purpose, and the effect of the course was neither to advance nor inhibit religion. Generally, a Bible study course was found to be secular if the Bible was studied from a literary and historical viewpoint, with no claims made as to its truth or falsity.

In addition to Bible study classes, some students formed voluntary Bible study clubs. In the wake of Schempp, the lower courts often held that such clubs could not meet on school grounds because the establishment clause required religious speech to be barred from governmental forums. However, in recent times there has been a shift away from strict separation of religion and government and a move toward accommodation of private religious activities and expression.

With regard to voluntary Bible clubs, this shift culminated in the federal Equal Access Act (EAA) enacted by Congress in 1984. Under the EAA a public secondary school that receives federal financial assistance may not deny equal access to its facilities to any students who wish to conduct a meeting within its forum on the basis of religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings. This equal access requirement applies only if the school allows one or more non–curriculum-related student groups to meet on school premises during noninstructional time. Thus, the school could bar all student groups from meeting; however, if it provides an opportunity for one, it must provide an opportunity for all.

In 1990, the Supreme Court upheld the EAA in the case of Board of Education v. Mergens. Then, in 2001, in the case of Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the Court provided for equal access in elementary schools by finding that the school’s authorization for a Christian children’s club to meet after hours on elementary school premises did not violate the establishment clause. Thus, Bible reading can take place in public schools in the context of student-sponsored Bible clubs. However, school-sponsored clubs are prohibited.

In the future, it is likely that the Court will continue to accommodate student-initiated religious activities and speech to the extent that there is no hint of school sponsorship of such activities or speech.

JANET W. STEVERSON

References and Further Reading

  • Collier, James M., and John J. George. ‘‘Education and the Supreme Court.’’ The Journal of Higher Education 21, no. 2 (1950): 77–83 
  • Donovan, Matthew D., Notes: Religion, Neutrality, and the Public School Curriculum: Equal Treatment or Separation. Catholic Lawyer 43 (Spring 2004): 187–223. 
  • Laycock, Douglas, The Many Meanings of Separation. University of Chicago Law Review 70 (Fall 2003): 1667–701. 
  • McCarthy, Martha, Religion and Education: Whither the Establishment Clause. Indiana Law Journal 75 (2000): 123–66. 
  • Valk, Rebecca A. ‘‘Note: Good News Club v. Milford Central School—A Critical Analysis of the Establishment Clause as Applied to Public Education.’’ St. John’s Journal of Legal Commentary 17 (Winter/Spring 2003): 347–98. 
  • Way, H. Frank. ‘‘Survey Research on Judicial Decisions: The Prayer and Bible Reading Cases.’’ Western Political Quarterly 21, no. 2 (1968): 189–205. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) 
  • Board of Education v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990) 
  • Equal Access Act, 20 U.S.C.A. §4071 (a) Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947) 
  • Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001) 
  • State ex rel. Weiss v. District Board of School Dist. No. 8 of City of Edgerton, 44 N.W. 967 (Wis. 1890)

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