It’s Throwback Thursday! What about religion?

There are several potential Golden Oldies when it comes to religion and the public schools. My favorite candidate is School District of Abington v. Schempp, a Supreme Court case from 1963. This case involved a Pennsylvania law that required the reading of 10 Bible verses in every public school each day. The law was challenged by a family that belonged to the Unitarian Church and rejected some of the teachings of the Bible.

The lawyer representing the school district understood that he could not justify teaching specific religious beliefs in a public school. That had already been decided. So his position was that the reading of the Bible verses was not “religious” instruction, but only “moral” instruction. Teaching kids right from wrong, teaching moral principles was perfectly OK. So the argument was that this was “moral” instruction that used a common, widely recognized source for moral instruction—the Bible. Moreover, the lawyer emphasized that the Bible was part of our religious heritage and tradition.

The reference to “tradition” opened the door for the Schempp’s lawyer to make this observation:

I think tradition is not to be scoffed at. But let me say this very candidly. I think it is the final arrogance to talk constantly about “our religious tradition” in this country and equate it with this Bible. Sure, religious tradition. Whose religious tradition? It isn’t any part of the religious tradition of a substantial number of Americans…and it’s just to me a little bit easy and I say arrogant to keep talking about “our religious tradition.” It suggests that the public schools, at least of Pennsylvania, are a kind of Protestant institution to which others are cordially invited.

The Court struck down the Pennsylvania statute in an opinion written by the only justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who graduated from the UT School of Law—Tom Clark.

Not much has changed since then as far as the law. Our country has become far more diverse than it was in 1963, but the legal principles have not budged. Schools can teach about religion, but cannot teach religious doctrine, or endorse religious beliefs.

What about teachers as individuals? Well, of course as individuals all school employees have the same constitutional rights as any other citizen. But those rights are restricted when on the job. This came up in Doe v. Duncanville ISD, a 1995 decision from the 5th Circuit. DISD argued that it could not restrict teachers and coaches from praying with the kids while at school. The 5th Circuit said, in effect, “Yes you can. And you must.”

The other side of the coin is the right of students to express their religious viewpoints to the same extent that they are free to talk about politics, music or anything else. In Morgan v. Swanson (2011) the 5th Circuit affirmed this principle, that “religious speech” is also “free speech.”

There are many strongly held opinions in our country about these issues, which is why we routinely recommend recitation of the Serenity Prayer—seeking the ability to peacefully accept what we cannot change; the courage to change what we can; and the wisdom to discern the difference.


File this one under: RELIGION