The Pesky Establishment Clause

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Bill of Rights was passed in 1769 following the Revolutionary War. Freedom was won from the United Kingdom where the Anglican Church was the state religion.  The First Amendment, quoted above, has been and remains a social and political football.

The arguments center around three philosophical points of view. There are those who believe that the establishment clause prevents any government support or endorsement of religious establishments. A second point of view holds that the establishment clause prevents the formation of a Church of America, a national church, and maintains that the Founders were clear in their endorsement of Christianity. There is a third point of view that maintains that the government may support  or even endorse religious establishments as long as it shows equal treatment.

Thomas Jefferson is often quoted to suggest a wall of separation between church and state. “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”

It is certainly an indication of intent of the Founders that the same First Congress that proposed the Bill of Rights opened its legislative day with prayer. It must be noted that this same Congress voted federal dollars to establish Christian missions in the Indian lands.

Supreme Court interpretations of the Establishment Clause began in 1947 with Everson v Board of Education. The Court, in a 5-4 vote, upheld a state law that reimbursed parents for the cost of busing their children to parochial schools. It was thought that if the reimbursement had taken place, that the state would clearly have violated the Establishment Clause. Subsequent cases would indicate that even small factual differences make a difference in the outcome. Justice Black stated with one case that the Constitution did not require, “callous indifference to religion.”

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that prayer in the schools was outlawed with a new interpretation of the Constitution. Prayer and Bible readings were used in many public settings including the public schools. In 1782, the United States Congress passed a resolution recommending and approving the Holy Bible for use in all schools.

The question of school sponsored prayer has been and still is a hot item. Schools have done away with baccalaureate services even when the service is conducted in a church and attendance is optional. That is a narrow interpretation as a result of the assault on Christian beliefs using the Establishment Clause.

The McGuffey Reader was used for over a 100 years in the public schools of the United States. McGuffey declared the Christian religion to be the religion of our country. Many passages in the Reader were drawn from the Scriptures. Lincoln called McGuffey the “Schoolmaster of the Nation.” McGuffey spent his lifetime trying to instill his strong beliefs on the next generation. He believed that religion and education needed to be related to have a  healthy society.

The Readers were filled with stories that reflected the importance of religious values. The stories were about allegiance to the country, the importance of work, the need for an independent spirit, strength, character, and truth. The Readers helped to shape America’s character and standards for morality for more than a century.

The Readers followed the values and moral character found in many of the early documents of our Country. Some founding State documents talk of integrity, trust,  industry and mirror the standards of the Bible from which the ideas came. The importance of the Readers was extensive; it is estimated that 120 million Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960. They remained in use in some schools until 1978.

Clearly, there was not an issue with the Establishment Clause. To the contrary, it was deemed necessary to co-mingle education and religion to maintain the tenor of our nation, to maintain the principles upon which we were founded. ,

The history of these issues and decisions surrounding the Establishment Clause are co-mingled with the freedom of speech issue in the same amendment. Both are protected by the First Amendment that prevents the government from establishing religion and also prevents government interference of privately initiated religious speech and activities. Finding the clear distinction between the two is not always easy. The Supreme Court has made clear, however, that private religious speech and secular speech are equally protected

The Establishment Clause has been used for different causes and reasons to eliminate the use of religion and the practice of religion in any public situation. It is being used to try to remove God from any public area. There are efforts to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps the largest effort now is to remove “In God We Trust” from our currency.
















Comments are closed.