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Supreme Court ruling 50 years ago set modern course for religion in public schools

Published: Friday, June 14 2013 4:45 p.m. MDT

The ACLU took up the case, winning at district court level, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.

Stephen D. Solomon, an attorney and media law professor at New York University who wrote a book about the Schempp decision, "Ellery's Protest," said that in his research he pored over memos and minutes of the justices' deliberations on the case, learning there was overwhelming agreement among the justices on the issue and the decision was written by one of the four conservatives on the court.

"There was broad judicial consensus that state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading was a violation of First Amendment," Solomon said. "It was an easy decision for them."

But the ruling was difficult for the public to accept. It came a year after the court's landmark school prayer case, Engel v. Vitale, in which it found that forcing students in New York to recite a state-composed prayer violated the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Both rulings stoked a culture war between religious conservatives and liberal secularists who both overstated that the court had banned religion from public schools.

"Both extremes had the incentive to overstate it. Militant folks were happy to say that it drove religion out of the schools. Meanwhile, the other side had incentive to make it look as bad as possible to allow Congress to do something to reverse it," said Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School.

Solomon wrote that 146 resolutions were introduced in Congress within two years of the Schempp decision, proposing constitutional amendments that would overturn the decision. School districts, primarily in the South, ignored the ruling and continued religious devotionals in public schools.

While Pennsylvania stopped the practice immediately after the ruling, the Bible reading law remained on the books. Schempp was notified earlier this month that a Pennsylvania lawmaker plans to introduce legislation to repeal the unconstitutional and unenforceable state law.

Although the Schempp and Engel decisions banned ceremonial prayer and scriptural readings, First Amendment scholars point out that the court didn't ban religion from public schools. The rulings simply clarified government's role as a neutral player that should not be in the business of composing prayers or mandating students to read sacred texts without a non-religious purpose.

"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," Justice Tom C. Clark wrote for the majority in the Schempp case. "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 his concurring opinion, Justice Arthur Goldberg, one of five liberals on the court, warned against an extreme interpretation of government neutrality on religion becoming a "brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious."

In fact, the court said the teaching and study of religious history, comparative religion or the Bible as literature can be valuable. "Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment," Clark wrote.

Religious curriculum

Haynes said that language triggered a movement in the 1970s and 1980s that actually infused religious studies into the curriculum of public schools and universities.

"Before then, the curriculum was devoid of religion," he said.

The movement has since died down as the focus has turned toward students' rights of religious expression in class, athletic events and graduations.

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