Don’t Teach Religion

On this date in in 1948 the US Supreme Court published its decision in the case of McCollum vs. Board of Education Dist. 71. The issue in the case was whether the use of the public school system for religious classes violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. In an 8-to-1 decision, the court held that a multi-faith coalition’s teaching about religion in school classrooms violated the consititutional prohibition of government promoting religion.

The case arose because Vashti McCollum, the mother of a child who was compelled to attend school by state laws, objected to her son having to attend 30-minute, weekly classes conducted by private religious groups in the Champaign (IL, US) public schools. The religious instruction occurred during the school day, and students who did not attend it had to go to another place in the school building for secular studies.

In his opinion for the majority, Justice Hugo Black quoted from an earlier case (Everson vs. Board of Education) to make the central point that using schools for religious purposes violated the separation of church and state:

Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. [n6] Neither can force or influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will, or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. [n7] Neither a state nor [p211] the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”

Thanks to Vashti McCollum, who brought the case on behalf of her son James, we live freer of the imposition of religious dogma by the US, state, and local governements. And thanks to the US SC for recognizing that religion should be a private matter, not one foisted upon people by their government.

Links: Cornell USSC collection sources; Findlaw entry about this case.

Update: FFRF has an entry about the McCollum case for it’s “this day” feature; it’s nicely placed next to a recognition of O. W. Holmes’ birthday.



Filed under Birthdays, Civil rights, Notes and comments, Politics

3 responses to “Don’t Teach Religion

  1. I think there’s probably a debate that could be had about whether or not we’re a better place for not foisting religious fear on kids at an early age- that “Someone always sees the bad things you do” type of stuff, that might keep them honest and behaved for a few years more. I know most Conservatives think religion’s good, not because they share the values, but simply because it’s perceived as a good vehicle for controlling the masses. The “you think things are bad now- imagine how much more worse things would be if there were no religion.”

    Personally I always thought that religion in school could easily be replaced with a class about laws and ethics. It would be a secular approach to pretty much the same end goal.

    But for the record- I’m all for the separation of church and state.

  2. Kempis, thanks for the comment. I’d opt not to foist fear on anyone, as I see that as non-productive. Instead, I recommend that we ascertain positive means of promoting appropriate behavior. I see guilt, the generation of negative feelings for behavior, as less beneficial to the individual and society than teaching children how their behavior affects themselves and others. In this case, I’ll second B. F. Skinner’s arguments in (as I recall) Beyond Freedom and Dignity. In the long run, this probably would boil down to teaching about law and ethics, as you suggested, though I’m pretty sure it would be more a case of careful teaching in general, not just a class (at least as the term “class” is usually used in education, but, this is getting into topics that I cover in my professional blogs–teehee).

  3. You’ll get no disagreement from me regarding your preferred approach. The bottom line is parents are lazy, the majority of them don’t plan their kids, and then turn to the state to make their job easier. Religion is the lazy parent’s approach to promoting appropriate behavior.

    And yes I know I’ve probably angered a few thousand local Christians with that last comment.

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