February 2017

Agostini v. Felton (1997)

In 1985, the Supreme Court heard a case from NYC in which public school teachers were being sent into parochial schools to provide remedial education to disadvantaged students. It was decided in Aguilar v. Felton (1985) that this created an excessive entanglement of church and state, violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as applied to the states via the Fourteenth.

Twelve years later, the Court changed its mind.

Vouchers Approacheth (3 Supreme Court Cases)

Two BuildingsBeginning in the 1980s, the “wall of separation” between church and state stopped getting higher. The Court’s application of the First Amendment to public schooling became somewhat more accommodating towards people of faith.

It wasn’t an outright change of direction so much as an evolution in subtleties. The devil, as they say, was in the details.

Lee v. Weisman (1992), Part Two

Lee v. Weisman (1992)We’ve been looking at Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Supreme Court case which, in a 5-4 decision, banned school-sponsored prayer at graduation ceremonies and the like. The majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and provoked several scathing dissents. 

Kennedy had already rejected the suggestion that participation in such ceremonies was “voluntary,” thus precluding violation of the “Establishment Clause.” He now revisits the question of whether students participating in the ceremony are being coerced into ceremonial support for beliefs contrary to their own. 

Lee v. Weisman (1992), Part One

Church State Arm WrestleGraduation ceremonies provide an interesting dilemma when it comes to church-state separation. They are inherently connected to public schooling and school officials, and participating students are largely accountable to those authorities during the event. At the same time, they often take place outside of school hours and off school grounds, and are in most cases technically voluntary – students need not attend in order to graduate. 

So are they bound by the same restrictions established in Engel and Abington and clarified by Wallace and other subsequent decisions? The short answer is yeah, they pretty much are.

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) and the Reagan Revolution

Moment SilenceState legislators sponsoring these efforts acknowledged that the “moment of silence” was as much a symbolic move as anything. It served and serves no real purpose or function beyond stepping right up to the line of church-state separation and daring the courts to do something about it. Nor was this a surprise; many had openly run on a platform of getting prayer back into public schools. Based on the “Lemon Test” instituted in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), that alone should have been enough to quash the idea. But no. 

Stone v. Graham (1980)

Ten Commandments

If understanding a Bible story or incorporating some Old Testament prophecy is useful in shining some light on a piece of literature or a historical situation, then by all means – shine that light! Any reasonably educated person should have a working familiarity with the Christian Bible. But if scripture is being introduced as a subtle statement of values or a sort of cultural declaration of norms… no

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) & "The Lemon Test"

Lemon Love

Only a few years before, the Court had determined in Board of Education v. Allen (1968) that it was acceptable for New York to provide textbooks free of charge to all secondary students (Grades 7 – 12), including those in private schools. Surely, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania reasoned, this was essentially the same thing. 

It was an interesting question. Is financial assistance for a sectarian school more like pushing prayer and Bible verses in Engel or Abington, or like supplying bus fare and textbooks in Everson or Allen? Does state assistance constitute “establishment,” or would eliminating such help violate “free exercise”? 

Abington v. Schempp (1963)

Schempp Family

Schempp’s case was combined with one from Baltimore, Murray v. Curlett. While Abington is the one most remembered and discussed, it was Murray – as in “Madelyn Murray O’Hair” – which made the biggest ripple at the time. Ms. O’Hair was America’s most prominent and outspoken atheist of the 20th Century. For several generations after the Abington/Murray decision, she was loathed and demonized as the woman who removed God from public schools.

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Classroom Prayer

After Everson v. Board of Education (1947), fifteen years passed before the next important ‘religion and public schools’ case made its way to the Supreme Court. Whereas Everson dealt with transportation, Engel v. Vitale (1962) addressed the role of the supernatural in the classroom itself. To this day, many evangelicals blame this case for the collapse of American culture. After the highest court in the land “kicked God out of public school” came the sex, the drugs, the decadence, and the disrespect.

Just think – we could have avoided disco altogether if nine old men in robes could have restrained their humanistic tendencies for just a few more decades.

Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

Justice Scales

Prior to the 14th Amendment, the protections offered by the Bill of Rights applied primarily to the Federal Government. While most States had similar protections in their own constitutions, these were inconsistent and locally interpreted. 

The 14th Amendment changed all of that in ways neither immediate nor obvious. It was the first time that the States had been specifically targeted this way. It chipped away substantially at the wall separating State and Federal power – with central authority clearly coming out ahead.