Did Founders favor religion in schools?


Idahoans, and North Idahoans in particular, put a big emphasis on religious values. More particularly, on one religion. That’s not surprising; religion is part of culture and culture is endemic to humankind.

Despite all other emphases on individuality, we’ve always tended toward collectives to shape identity: Religion, ethnicity, citizenship, political affiliation — to name a few. Places where no one group outnumbers the others are rare to nonexistent.

On the flip side is the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing the freedom to be divergent and believe differently, protecting the minority and keeping any one religion from becoming official. As ever and throughout history, the temptation nevertheless pervades.

Lately, a few politicians and thought leaders have claimed the Founding Fathers intended religion in public schools, and that’s what America’s first schools were like. Chief among them is Florida governor and former presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.

Is it true?

The answer isn’t as simple as yes or no. No, the Founders didn’t expressly intend religion in U.S. public schools when the nation was born. They couldn’t, because (what became) the U.S. didn’t even have public school systems at the state level until much later. Yet, the question of religion and education is much broader in context. Religious persecution of minorities is why many early settlers came to the colonies.

According to historians, in 1787, when most delegates signed the Constitution, education outside the home (and in general) was mostly for rich families whose children attended private schools. As it was in their origin countries, average American families couldn’t afford the time, lost labor or money to send their kids to school.

It was different among indigenous peoples. In Native American nations at the time of Columbus’s arrival, children’s education was generally universal and community-based. Whether Native American spirituality was part of that, I haven’t researched. I imagine it possible in close-knit communities where beliefs were uniform.

What did the Founders say about religion in school? Not much, say historians. None planned a public school system while forming this nation. Some agreed with Jefferson, who wrote that in a free country public schools should remove all ideas of religion entirely, leaving it to the privacy of home. Others, such as Benjamin Rush, advocated for a public system based on evangelical Christianity. In the end, the Constitution and Bill of Rights made no mention of education at all.

Before the 1830s, the only free or community-supported American schools were often associated with churches; many towns didn’t have schools. In the 1830s Horace Mann, who later became Massachusetts’ first secretary of its newly formed Board of Education, devised the “common school” concept leading to today’s public school system. By the mid-1800s, most states had free, tax-supported schools children were required to attend.

While these weren’t affiliated with any church, most opened with prayer, a common custom of the times. It didn’t take long to become controversial; many American settlers fled religious persecution and children are especially impressionable. Early objections weren’t to prayer itself, but to denominational preferences. Officials, parents and communities argued over which should dominate.

Soon, free or affordable religious private schools opened, as options for parents who wanted strong church influence in their children’s education. Religious private school enrollment remains fairly steady today, with a 4% decrease in Catholic school enrollment and an 8% increase in other religious schools in recent years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

We’re getting way beyond the Founders, but this chapter of history is just as relevant now.

Debates over prayer in school never really ended. As the nation grew, so did adherents of different religions and types of spirituality. First Amendment Establishment Clause concerns and objections in public settings grew louder.

What some hoped would settle the issue, but clearly hasn’t, was the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case Engels v. Vitale. A parent sued the New York public school system over its daily, non-denominational prayer following the Pledge of Allegiance. The prayer was brief:

“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”

The 6-1 majority held that school-sponsored prayer violated First Amendment protections against government establishment of religion (and allowing kids to opt out was irrelevant to the school-religion connection). In his dissent, Justice Stewart argued the Establishment Clause only prohibited a particular state-sponsored church, like the Church of England, not nondenominational prayer. The majority countered that government endorsement of any kind of religion, in a country where there is a wide variety of them (including spiritual atheism), is inappropriate.

Since then, the debate in the courts over what constitutes establishment of, or government interference in, religion continues. Decisions fall on both sides. Since 1971, the Supreme Court has often used an analysis created in Lemon v. Kurtzman, which prohibits any government action that (1) lacks secular purpose, (2) has the primary effect of “endorsing” religion, or (3) excessively entangles government in religion. Under the Lemon test, if a government action does any of these, it violates the Establishment Clause.

That’s trickier than it sounds. Government actions have multiple effects; which is “primary?” What is “endorsing” versus permitting (clubs on campus, for example)? What’s “entanglement” or excessive? Interpreting words in controversy is nothing new to SCOTUS; that’s its job. Still, the Lemon test has been criticized as being too subjective, even for a constitution meant to be flexible enough to withstand time and civilizational growth.

Religion is also subjective, and never a simple issue. Heartfelt, urgently held beliefs are not and never will be uniform in a species which is variant by nature. Arranging government to balance one group’s freedom without impinging on another’s may be a perpetual struggle.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email

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