Religion and Law in Contemporary US
Bill Long 10/1/06
The Tumultuous Sixties I
The purpose of this class is to review four or five significant issues that showed how the churches responded to changes in American culture in the 1960s. The issues are still with us.
I. Excluding School-Organized Prayer and Bible Readings from the Public Schools
A. The Supreme Court in Engle v. Vitale (1962)
B. The Supreme Court in Schempp v. Abingdon School District (1963)
C. Reactions to the Court's Decisions
II. The Early Civil Rights Movement--Focusing on Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech (August 28, 1963) at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC.
III. The Free-Speech Movement Beginning in Berkeley, CA (1964)
IV. Three Views of the Church as a Result of the Post-WWII Situation
A. The Church as the Society of Good Americans
B. The Church as the Society of those Testifying to Having been Saved by a Work of Grace in the Soul
C. The Church as the Society of those Working for Social Justice
Discussion Question: Are these compatible? Which one/ones do you Favor? Does the Church need a Single Focus? Is there a Mission Statement that can make Everyone "Happy"?
V. The Presbyterian Church Weighs In
A. The Confession of 1967 and the Message of Reconciliation
B. The Case of Angela Davis--giving of $10,000 to her Legal Defense Fund, by the Church's Council on Church and Race
Conclusion: Confusion by the End of the 1960s
Summary of issues and important points in Engel v. Vitale, 370 US 421 (1962).
A group of parents sued a New York public school district for requiring students to begin each school day by reciting a nondenominational prayer. Written by the New York State Board of Regents, the prayer read: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country." Both the state court and the New York Court of Appeals allowed the prayer to be recited.
Decision: The Court ruled that requiring students to recite the prayer is unconstitutional.
Majority Opinion: (Justice Black)
The 'religious activity' of reciting the Regents' prayer violates the Establishment Clause. This governmentally orchestrated prayer recitation is akin to the practices in English Creation of the Book of Common Prayer. It was to avoid this type of relationship between government and organized religion that many early colonists came to America. The Founders included the First Amendment to ensure that the majority could not officially recognize any particular religion as the use of school prayers does. Concerning the lack of compulsion on students to recite the prayer, "Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observances on the part of students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause..." The Establishment clause is violated regardless of whether there is any "showing of direct government compulsion...whether those laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not."
This case was one of the first in a series of cases in which a variety of religious activities were found to violate the Establishment Clause. Neither the voluntary nature of school prayers nor their nondenominational character protected them from violating the Establishment Clause.
Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 US 203 (June 17, 1963)
MR. JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.
Once again we are called upon to consider the scope of the provision of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." These companion cases present the issues in the context of state action requiring that schools begin each day with readings from the Bible. While raising the basic questions under slightly different factual situations, the cases permit of joint treatment. In light of the history of the First Amendment and of our cases interpreting and applying its requirements, we hold that the practices at issue and the laws requiring them are unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment....
The conclusion follows that in both cases the laws require religious exercises and such exercises are being conducted in direct violation of the rights of the appellees and petitioners.9 Nor are these required exercises mitigated by the fact that individual students may absent themselves upon parental request, for that fact furnishes no defense to a claim of unconstitutionality under the Establishment Clause. See Engel v. Vitale, supra, at 430. Further, it is no defense to urge that the religious practices here may be relatively minor encroachments on the First Amendment. The breach of neutrality that is today a trickling stream may all too soon become a raging torrent and, in the words of Madison, "it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties." Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, quoted in Everson, supra, at 65.
It is insisted that unless these religious exercises are permitted a "religion of secularism" is established in the schools. We agree of course that the State may not establish a "religion of secularism" in the sense of affirmatively opposing or slowing hostility to religion, thus "preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe." Zorach v. Clauson, supra, at 314. We do not agree, however. that this decision in any sense has that effect. In addition, it might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment. But the exercises here do not fall into those categories. They are religious exercises, required by the States in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion.
Finally, we cannot accept that the concept of neutrality, which does not permit a State to require a religious exercise even with the consent of the majority of those affected, collides with the majority's right to free exercise of religion.10 While the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs. Such a contention was effectively answered by Mr. Justice Jackson for the Court in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943):
"The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to . . . freedom of worship . . . and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."
The place of religion in our society is an exalted one achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality. Though the application of that rule requires interpretation of a delicate sort, the rule itself is clearly and concisely stated in the words of the First Amendment. Applying that rule to the facts of these cases, we affirm the judgment in No. 142. In No. 119, the judgment is reversed and the cause remanded to the Maryland Court of Appeals for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
A few reactions to these Supreme Court decisions, taken from American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham (2006)
US Rep. George Andrews (AL) said "They put Negroes in the schools and now they've driven God out." Frank Becker (R-NY) called it "The most tragic decision in the history of the United States." Former President Herbert Hoover, then 88, said the ruling was a "disintegration of one of the most sacred of American heritages."
On the other side, the Rev. William Sperry, a Detroit pastor said, "It is wrong for the churches to expect the government to implement their teachings." And a Methodist Church in Schenectady, NY put up a sign saying that the "place for specific teaching and formal practice of religion is in the home and in the church."
Opening Paragraph's of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech. Full text is here.
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long