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 Chapter 16

The Bible in Public Schools


IN the latter part of the nineteenth century, a number of legal battles took place over the reading of Bible in the public schools of America. In the 1870s, a case that was to have significance in other parts of the United States revolved around the decision of the Cincinnati Board of Education, to repeal a resolution which had allowed for teachers to read the Bible in the classroom. The new resolution was as follows:

Resolved, That religious instruction, and the reading of religious books, including the Holy Bible, are prohibited in the common schools of Cincinnati, it being the true object and intent of this rule to allow the children of the parents of all sects and opinions, in matters of faith and worship, to enjoy alike the benefits of the common school fund.

Resolved, That so much of the regulations of the course of study and text-books in the intermediate and district schools .  . . as reads as follows: "The opening exercises in every department shall commence by reading a portion of the Bible, by or under the direction of the teacher, and appropriate singing by the pupil," be repealed. Quoted in William Blakely, American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation, 1891, p. 192

A number of citizens objected to this measure, and the case was heard before the Superior Court of Cincinnati. In a two-to-one decision, the Superior Court overruled the resolutions of the school board, thus continuing the reading of Bible in the city schools.

However, the case was appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which reversed the decision of the Superior Court, thus upholding the school board’s decision to delete the reading of Bible from public schools in Cincinnati. The majority opinion of the Ohio Supreme Court was written by Mr. Justice Welch, who argued forcibly,

We are told that the word "religion" must mean Christian "religion," because "Christianity is a part of the common law of this country," lying behind and above each constitution. Those who make this assertion can hardly be serious, and intend the real import of their language. If Christianity is a law of the state, like every other law, it must have a sanction and equal penalties must be provided to enforce obedience to all its requirements and precepts. No one seriously contends for any such doctrine in this country, or, I might almost say, in this age of the world. Blakely, p. l92, 193

The justice went on to point out that,

True Christianity asks no aid from the sword of civil authority. It began without the sword, and wherever it has taken the sword, it has perished by the sword. To depend on civil authority for its enforcement is to acknowledge its own weakness, which it can never afford to do. It [Christianity] is able to fight its own battles. Its weapons are moral and spiritual, and not carnal. Blakely, p. 193

Mr. Justice Welch also pointed out that there is no mention in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, of religion as one of the declared objects of government, much less Christianity. Therefore he argued that the state could not have any religious opinions. (Blakely, p. 194, 195)

Counsel for the plaintiffs had argued that to withdraw all religious instruction from the school would be to place children under the control of "infidel sects." (Ibid. p. 200)

The judge argued against this viewpoint, saying,

This is by no means so. To teach the doctrines of infidelity, and thereby teach that Christianity is false, is one thing; and to give no instruction on the subject is quite another thing. The only fair and impartial method, where serious objection is made, is to let each sect give its own instructions, elsewhere than in the State schools. Ibid.

The judge then quoted James Madison as stating,

Religion is not within the purview of human government. Religion is essentially distinct from human government, and exempt from its cognizance. A connection between them is injudicious to both. There are causes in the human breast which insure the perpetuity of religion without the aid of law. Ibid., p. 200, 201

Of equal significance was a decision of the Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin delivered in July of 1890. The case involved the reading of portions of the King James Version of the Bible every day in the public schools in the city of Edgerton. Some of the taxpayers of Edgerton, apparently Roman Catholics in their religious faith, objected strenuously and took their complaint to the court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court rendered a unanimous decision in which they declared such bible reading to be unconstitutional. The court ruled that the reading of the Bible in the public schools of the state during school hours was sectarian instruction, and thus prohibited by the Constitution. (Blakely, p. 226)

Mr. Justice Lyon, rendering the court’s decision, pointed out that the King James Version of the Bible was not accepted by all religious sects. Commenting upon the decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the New York Independent wrote,

We presume that there is not a Protestant in Wisconsin who would hesitate a moment on the point, if the book read had been the Douay version of the Bible, which is acceptable to the Catholics, or the Koran [of the Muslims], or the Book of Mormon. The reading of such a book as a part of school exercises, whether for worship or religious instruction, would be offensive to Protestants, and they would have good cause for complaint, just as the reading of the King James’s [sic] Version, which is sometimes called the Protestant Bible, is offensive to Catholics. New York Independent, July 19, 1890, quoted in Blakely, p. 227

The school board of Edgerton had argued that no pupil was required to stay in the school room when the Bible was being read. But Mr. Justice Lyon responded as follows,

When, as in this case, a small minority of the pupils in the public school is excluded, for any cause, from a stated school exercise, particularly when such cause is apparent hostility to the Bible, which a majority of the pupils have been taught to revere, from that moment the excluded pupil loses caste with his fellows and is liable to be regarded with aversion, and subject to reproach and insult. But it is a sufficient refutation of the argument that the practice in question tends to destroy the equality of the pupils, which the constitution seeks to establish and protect, and puts a portion of them at a serious disadvantage in many ways with respect to that of others. Quoted in Blakely

Third, the Wisconsin Supreme Court argued that,

The reading of the Bible is an act of worship and therefore the taxpayers of any district cannot be compelled to contribute to the support of public schools which enjoin an act of worship. As the Wisconsin constitution expressly declared that the people could not be compelled to erect any place for the purpose of worship, then no tax money could be used to support a public school which introduced any element of worship into its curriculum. Ibid. p. 228

The fourth point made by the court was that, should religious instruction take place in the public school, it would be parallel to the state supporting a religious seminary. The justices assured the community in their statement that the schools had every right and responsibility to teach morality and good conduct in the common schools, but that it should not be connected with any particular church or religion, for such a practice inevitably led to the state becoming despotic.

In spite of the careful way in which these two cases were argued, whereby the issue of the reading of Scripture in the public schools was forcibly declared to be unconstitutional, this issue continues to be repetitively raised in American society even to this time. It must be emphasized that in the freedom principles of America, any religion, Christian or otherwise, has the full right to establish its own schools and to teach emphatically the belief system that it holds, and to use any means of instruction it chooses, whether it be the Bible, the Koran, the writings of Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other "holy" book.

If the arguments quoted above were to be taken to their logical conclusions, the present thrust for the establishment of the voucher system in the United States would be held to be wholly unconstitutional. The voucher system calls for parents to be provided with a certain amount of money for education, should they choose to have their children educated in a private or sectarian school. Logic would also lead to the repealing of legislation in countries like Australia where huge amounts of funds are provided from the public treasury in the support of private and sectarian schools. Such actions seriously breach the principle of the separation of church and state.

The public school system has been established to serve the educational needs of the citizens of the nation. It is charged to exclude the presentation of sectarian concepts. It supports no particular religion, be it Christian or non-Christian, nor does it proselytize those who have no religious persuasion.

Today the Christian community of the United State is sharply divided on the issue of bible readings and school prayer. Some of the more strongly fundamentalist Protestants believe that the removal of prayer and the reading of the Bible from the public schools has greatly diminished the moral influence of the public schools upon their students. They see this as a factor contributing to the violence, crime, and immorality that is prevalent in society today. Thus there is increasing agitation for the removal of some of the strict laws that have been passed in more modern times, prohibiting the teaching or practice of religion in the public schools. It must never be forgotten that false thinking is always supported among its advocates by plausible reasons. That truism is evident in this matter.

Other citizens believe that to introduce prayer into the public schools or to allow bible readings would be a direct violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Today, as the cosmopolitan nature of American society reflects increased numbers who have accepted non-Christian religions, these matters become an even more contentious issue. However, the elimination of any vestige of Christianity in the public schools has brought fierce opposition from many sincere Christians. There are at least three troubling elements at stake:

(1) As mentioned, it is argued that the great social problems, including violence, crime, sexual promiscuity, and drugs, are partially a result of the lack of moral influence now exerted in the public school systems—a decline that is linked to the elimination of Judeo-Christian values in schools and in society, and specifically the principles of the law of God.

(2) Presently, however, the curriculum developers seem to have much less inhibition about presenting non-Christian religions such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism in the social studies text books. It has sometimes been argued that this is part of the acculturation of the students to the pluralistic society in which they live. But such answers do not satisfy sincere Christians, who object strenuously to what they see as the replacement of what were once the Judeo-Christian values by the non-Christian values.

(3) Almost universally, evolution theory is being taught in the public school system. Many sincere Christians see this as a concept totally antagonistic to Christianity. Those who believe so see it as a deep breech in the intent of the First Amendment, for they see it as planting anti-Christian precepts in the minds of the students. Some Christians, who otherwise might be favorable to a level of Christian principles being taught in the public school, are now reticent because of the diversity of religious thought within the United States of America.

While some Americans possess little concern about various religious groups offering some religious instruction in public school, they have no desire to see pagan religions being taught in the public schools of America. They point to the fact that, fundamentally, America is a Christian nation, established upon Christian principles, a nation whose coins declare, "In God We Trust." They are further revolted by the thought that some satanist groups might also argue their right to offer instruction in public schools. Thus for these reasons they prefer to forego their desire to have Christian principles enunciated in the public school system.

Still others argue that the American society provides opportunity for parents to send their children to private schools where there is no restriction on the type of religious training that may be provided. The limitation of this argument is that, while this provision is available, theoretically, to all citizens of the nation; in reality, because of the cost to parents of private school education, it is, in practical terms, unavailable to the very poor families of the nation. The issue of school prayer and bible reading is a very complex one, where a society attempts to provide equal access for all students, on the one hand, but on the other, seeks to avoid supporting or appearing to support any particular religious persuasion.

When we were boys growing up in Australia, we attended public school up until the end of fourth grade. There the government schools attempted to solve the issue in a way which at that time proved satisfactory to Australian citizens. Any religious group could appoint one representative to teach a religious class one period per week. Each representative was provided a class room in which to expound the Scriptures to the children who would attend. The students could choose whatever church group they desired, or, if they desired not to attend any group, they could spend the period in the school library. Thus the schools provided for at least some Christian training for those who wanted to take advantage of it, without requiring anyone to attend or promoting any particular religion. In today’s society, the authors are not enthusiastic for this process, knowing the attraction that anti-Christian religions would provide for many children.

Another group of citizens, while not supporting coercion of Bible reading in a public school environment, nevertheless recognize that the reading of the Bible would hurt no child. Indeed, for many, they argue, it may be the only place where they ever hear the words of the Bible; the only opportunity that they would have to recognize its power in the human life. Some Christians fear that if they strongly oppose the reading of the Bible in the public schools, they may be seen as opposing the Scriptures. If this should happen, they could be counted with the atheists, the agnostics, and the infidels who oppose the Word of God.

The authors stand firmly upon the platform of separation of Church and State in the curriculum of the public schools. We stand firmly against the voucher system or any system that calls for public funding to support private education. Great care must be exercised to avoid anything that would erode the broadest intent of the guarantees of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Citizens should not overlook the fact that the misuse of state monies for parochial school education is far from unknown. In Australia public money has been on occasions utilized for the construction of denomination youth centers, using the justification that children from the sectarian school sometimes go to the youth center for field trips. Other cases of abuse of state funds include church administrators appropriating state-aid funds for their salaries on the grounds that they have some supervisory role, such as school board chairman, or as treasurers of the church, because the government monies are sent to them for dispersion. Such abuses are not the central issue of opposition to state funding of private schools, for that centrality rests upon the principle of the separation of church and state. They do, nevertheless, underscore the lack of integrity sometimes exhibited by church administrators.


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