- - Friday, February 17, 2012


By Steven K. Green
Oxford University Press, $29.95, 304 pages

Those of us disturbed by the secularization of America’s schools often point to Supreme Court decisions handed down in the early 1960s as the turning point in the federal government’s efforts to expunge faith from public education.

Two court rulings a half-century ago established the current prohibition on prayer in schools and the ban on Bible readings and other public-school-sponsored religious activities.

But, as Steven K. Green argues in his fine new book, “The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine,” we cannot fully appreciate the court’s modern church-state jurisprudence without understanding a series of court rulings and other events a century earlier.

From 1863 to 1876, education experts, religious leaders, numerous courts and society at large debated whether Bible reading belonged in public schools and whether religious schools could receive public funding. That debate became known as the School Question. It became the basis for many subsequent church-state battles, some of which continue today.

In the early decades of our republic, there was little distinction between public and private schooling. The debates focused not on whether but rather on how schools should instill moral and religious values.

Nonsectarianism emerged in antebellum America as a way to make public schools accessible to children of all economic, ethnic and faith groups. Nonsectarianism shouldn’t be confused with secularism, however. Nonsectarianism helped maintain the Protestant ethos of public education and instill a common religious devotion in children.

Horace Mann, the country’s most prominent advocate of nonsectarian education, argued that schools should respect freedom of conscience but also teach the “fundamental principles of Christianity.” He insisted that the goal of his system of education was “to make the perfect example of Jesus Christ lovely in [the children’s] eyes.”

But America’s fast-growing Catholic population, feeling marginalized by the Protestant ethos of public schools, began developing a system of parochial schools. And Catholic schools began campaigning to receive public funds.

Today, Protestants and Catholics are strong allies standing together against the continuing secularization of the public school system. But a century and a half ago, they were often bitter enemies in the primary “culture war” issue of the day. Back then, many Protestants supported using government to discriminate against Catholic institutions.

Mr. Green writes that in response to what was perceived as the growing “threat” of Catholic parochial schools, many Protestants argued against the public funding of parochial schools by advancing the idea of strict church-state separation. Mr. Green notes that an unintended effect of the fighting over funding between Catholics and Protestants was the advancement of secularization in the public schools.

The debate culminated in Minor v. Board of Education, otherwise known as the Cincinnati Bible War of 1869, what the author calls “the most significant church-state case of the 19th century.”

In the case, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Bible reading in school was unconstitutional even when conducted without note or comment and without the purpose of instilling religious devotion. Ohio became the first state to authorize the banning of unmediated Bible reading from public schools.

“Minor was a watershed decision, and its repercussions would be felt throughout the remainder of the century and into the next,” Mr. Green writes. “From this point forward, the question was whether any use of the Bible was constitutional. Minor had forever changed the focus of the debate.”

Soon after, Christian conservatives and secularists proposed competing amendments to the U.S. Constitution designed to resolve the School Question for good. The secularists’ effort became the Blaine Amendment, one of the most controversial amendments to the U.S. Constitution ever proposed.

Named after its sponsor, Rep. James G. Blaine, Maine Republican, the Blaine Amendment would have amended the Constitution to bar any direct government funding to religious schools. The effort narrowly failed after a contentious debate. But it set a tone for constitutional developments for decades to come.

The Blaine Amendment inspired many states to enact laws that limited or outlawed government funding of religious groups, and no-funding provisions gradually began appearing in state constitutions. Courts in recent years have cited these provisions in striking down voucher plans that include private religious schools.

Hostility to faith in public schools has been taken to such extremes that in my hundreds of talks to public school children across the country, I have found that most aren’t even taught one of the founding principles of our nation - that our liberty comes from God.

The events surrounding the School Question did not settle the issue of Bible reading or religious instruction in the public education system. It took decades for Bible reading to be eliminated entirely as the secularization of American public education became complete.

But, as the author writes, the events of the 19th century had a “commanding impact” on modern church-state doctrine. Mr. Green’s book is a thorough and engaging account of, as he writes, “the transformative era in American church-state law, the one in which America ceased to be a Republic of the Bible.”

Former Undersecretary of Education Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of Campaign for Working Families.

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