Law in Contemporary Society

A First Amendment Dilemma: Keeping the Bible in Public Schools

-- By JeffreyPan - 26 Feb 2010

The First Amendment and the idea of the separation of church and state has led to an unhealthy antagonism of Christianity in the public square.

I think you mean "against." "Of" makes no sense in that context. Whether a determination to prevent Christianity from acting as the dominant religion in public contexts constitutes "antagonism" depends on the outcome of arguments you haven't tried to make out yet.

This can be seen particularly clearly with the controversy over whether to allow the Bible into public schools.

I have never heard of a single case concerning whether to allow the Bible into public schools. An order to prohibit Bibles from being in schools would be no more constitutional than an order prohibiting copies of the Qur'an. The cases you discuss below, whether rightly or wrongly decided, have nothing to do with whether the Bible can be in the school. They concern whether some activity by the state results in public activity "respecting an establishment of religion."

A History of the Separation of Church and State

The phrase "wall of separation" was never meant to connote a separation of religion from the public square.

Nonsense. It's used that way all the time. You mean, it wasn't originally meant to connote "separation of religion from the public square." That's a tendentious proposition that may not be right, but even if it is granted, what difference does it make?

It was first used by theologian Roger Williams

It seems you don't know much about Roger Williams. The epithet "Theologian Roger Williams" makes as much sense as "Monk Martin Luther," in the first place. If you do read Williams' Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, or even meet him through the work of Edmund Morgan and Perry Miller, and come to understand the ideas that got him expelled from Massachusetts, you'll find that he does indeed believe in a neutral public sphere, in which government's responsibility is to prevent any interference with the free development of each conscience as it seeks truth. Preventing the swaggering of any particular Christianity is not the limit of these ideas. The triumphalism of all the jealous religions is equally offensive to the theory.

and adopted by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, a religious minority, in order to assure them that the First Amendment would prevent the Government from interfering with their exercise of religion. (Letter to the Danbury Baptists)

This statement is deliberately misleading. The Danbury Baptist Association wrote to Jefferson in a purely formal address of congratulation on being elected President. Hundreds of such addresses were written, and—as one might expect from Baptists living in a State where prevailing Congregationalists put no protections against either establishment or interference with free exercise in the State Constitution—they salute Jefferson as the creator of religious liberty through disestablishment in Virginia, and hope that his refulgent glory will illumine their state legislature, etc. etc. etc.. Just pompous, ludicrous crap that such American civic associations used to write. Now we have blogs.

Jefferson returned a dignified statement of his basic position, dressed up with some more formalities and politenesses, which is what political men did with their time instead of shaking hands at subway stations. He replied that 'I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.'

In other words, reducing the whole of his religious policy to a phrase, it was summed up in the First Amendment's construction of a wall of separation between church and state.

That anyone ever thought this exchange of post-election bloviation was quotable as serious evidence in constitutional discussion is ludicrous: you might as well try to explain foreign policy on the basis of the protocol crap written on the diplomatic dinner invitations at the State Department. But what it says clearly is that Jefferson and his Baptist interlocutors both understood the "wall between church and State" as an epitome of the First Amendment's approach.

When the First Amendment was ratified, the founders intended to separate church and state on the federal level, but not on the state level. In fact, Madison actually had to assure Representative Benjamin Huntington that the First Amendment would not interfere with Connecticut's ability to have an official state religion. (Courting Religion)

Gradually, through the passage of the 14th Amendment and numerous Supreme Court cases, the separation of church and state evolved into the doctrine that it is today.

That's one way of putting it. Another would be that there was a single event, the Civil War. The Imperial government that raised an army, fought and won a war that cost 660,000 lives, ended slavery and smashed the South naturally emerged far stronger in its relation to the States. The religious policy of the Federal Empire became uniform: no one supposed that any State could establish a religion after the Civil War; it needed no Supreme Court "incorporation" decision to make that evident. The wall between church and state became a formative article of the Empire that emerged at the head of the West after the Second World War. Evangelical and Presbyterian America, which was largely in political quiescence during the period from the end of Prohibition to the end of the Cold War, began to assert itself politically against post-Christian American institutions at the end of the 20th century, largely at the invitation of the Republican Party, which was seeking to build a coalition among Wall Street, the extraction industries, white supremacy, and Christian bigotry.

In many instances, the Court has used the First Amendment to protect religious freedom. For example, in the landmark case, Engel v. Vitale, the Court prohibited public schools from requiring the recitation of an official school prayer.

Encouraging Individual Religious Expression and Biblical Literacy

Recently the push to separate church and state has gone too far by pushing the Bible out of many public schools altogether. This is not say that schools should be encouraging one form of religion over another, but there are two reasons for which the Bible should be allowed into public schools: (1) individual religious expression (2) biblical literacy.

Individual Religious Expression

Christianity is an important part of the upbringing and lives of many Americans. Thus, Christian students should be allowed to express their faith, as it pertains to them, in the classroom. In Busch v. Marple Newton School District, the Court of Appeals upheld the school's decision not to let the mother of a kindergartner, Wesley, share a Bible passage as part of an "All About Me" unit on the interests and identities of all the students.

The Court explained, "A reading from the more than a message and unquestionably conveys a strong sense of spiritual and moral authority. In this case, the audience is involuntary and very young. Parents of public school kindergarten students may reasonably expect their children will not become captive audiences to an adult's reading of religious texts."

While the Court makes an important point about the impressionability of young children, it seems to forget the context in which the Bible is being introduced in this case. As part of the "All About Me" week, Wesley was invited to read part of his favorite book to the class and he told his mother that he wished to read the Bible. In response, Wesley's mother picked Psalm 118:1-4 and 14, an inspiring and poetic passage from one of Wesley's favorite books of the Bible. Wesley's mother was not teaching a lesson about the Bible, nor even explicitly referencing Christianity. Instead, Wesley and his mother were sharing about an important part of their identity. Isn't that what "All About Me" week was really all about? (Busch v. Marple Newton)

Is this an argument directed at demonstrating that the school was required to permit the reading of Psalms by a kindergartner's mother to the class once they created "All About Me" week? That once "All About Me" was put on a lesson plan, some kindergartner's mother with a bee and a Bible passage in her pocket was entitled to classroom time to read from her Scripture to the class _at which children would be required to remain?_ It's no surprise that so used the argument cannot succeed. But if they weren't required to let Mrs Busch read her verses to her kid's classmates, what difference does it make whether they should have let her do it? There are hundreds of millions of things that should have happened in classrooms in America yesterday, none of which you can have a lawsuit about.

And of course this isn't a case about whether the Bible is allowed in school. No one said it wasn't allowed in school. They just said a kindergarten teacher didn't have to let Mrs Busch read Psalms to other kindergartners as part of a class they couldn't leave.

Biblical Illiteracy of Americans

The second reason why the Bible should be allowed into schools is to promote Biblical literacy among Americans. According to a recent poll on Biblical literacy, surveying 1,002 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18, two-thirds of those polled could not identify a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount and fewer than one-third could identify basic facts about King David. (Bible Literacy Report)

Similar deplorable results are gotten when students are tested on subjects about which I care far more deeply and which I regard as far more important. So?

According to a recent Time article, only half of U.S. adults know the title of even one Gospel and most can't name the Bible's first book. (The Case for Teaching the Bible)

Ameliorating ignorance is very important. But worrying specifically about literacy in the Christian scriptures, as opposed to the Qur'an, the Vedas, or Popol Vuh requires that one have some special solicitude for the Christian religion. Although non-bigoted reasons for such a preference can be adduced, including the importance of ideas and images from the Christian scriptures in the history of European culture (which Americans also do not know about at all, in general), in the end almost all the reasons for caring about knowledge of one scripture over another are bigotry.

Importance of Biblical Education

Why is Biblical literacy important? Because "the Bible is the most influential book ever written."

An absurd unattributed statement inside what should be scare quotes. "The Bible" isn't one book, but dozens of versions of several incompatible anthologies, involving different sorts of literature written down for different purposes over substantially more than a thousand years. To call it "a book" is to mistake form for substance. The Qu'ran is a book, or rather, a written recitation (the actual meaning of "Qur'an") with as much authorial unity as any supposedly sacred work can have. I don't think the category "most influential book ever written" makes any particular sense, but I think the Qur'an is a better nomination than "the Bible." Better still are probably the surviving works of Aristotle, Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which are actually books written at an ascertainable time and place that have changed radically the course of human history.

The Bible is referenced and alluded to throughout English literature. Shakespeare alone referenced the Bible some 1,300 times in his works. (Ibid.)

"Ibid"! Where did you copy that sentence from in a context that had a preceding reference? That's cut and paste plagiarism, and you should be ashamed of yourself. The sentence itself, about the 1,300 Biblical references in Shakespeare, comes from the count in Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy, a mostly silly book much beloved of the Texas Schoolbook Conservatives and other such riff-raff because written by an actual "Professor" in a real university. Obviously you lifted your sentence from someone who was actually citing Prothero, which the "get the Bible back in the schools" newsletters seem to do with repetitive energy all the time.

The Bible has also had a major impact on U.S. history. America's first settlers came here in search of freedom to practice their religion according to the Bible. The early Americans compared themselves to the Israelites: they viewed their voyage across the Atlantic as a modern-day exodus out of Egypt. Manifest Destiny paralleled Israel's settlement of the holy land. (Bible Illiteracy in America).

This is a genuinely bizarre paragraph. It's good to know that the primary citation upholding this mess is an article in a partisan weekly with no intellectual credibility whatever.

In the political realm, America's greatest leaders have quoted the Bible throughout the ages. Winthrop's description of America as a "city upon a hill" was a quote from the book of Matthew. Martin Luther King Jr.'s expression, "let justice roll down like waters" was borrowed from the Old Testament book of Amos. Today, the bible continues to play an important, if controversial, role in political dialogue.

And this is the reason why American children should study, not Jonathan Winthrop and Martin King, but the Bible? Does that mean that students should study not George HW Bush & "Junior" and Bill Clinton but Clint Eastwood, because all three Presidents quoted Dirty Harry at one time or another?

Many people are fearful that bringing the Bible into schools will illegally promote religion in the classroom. Others fear that it is just the first step towards a theocratic country. However when classrooms decide to exclude the Bible, or when schools decide to prohibit Biblical literacy electives, as was the case at Frankenmuth High School in Michigan recently, students lose out on a complete education. (The Bible in Class: Is It Ever Legal?)


The First Amendment plays an important role in protecting religious freedom in America's schools, but if Courts continue to push the Bible out of public schools, they will be infringing on the rights of Christian students to express their faith and the rights of all students to learn about the importance of the Bible in American history and society.

The First Amendment also plays a role in protecting irreligious freedom in schools, which is the part of the problem that receives no attention here. You have no cases prohibiting the Bible from being placed in, read in, or even taught in, public schools. You have mentioned, as problematic, only a couple of the strong lines of cases that are designed to prevent Christians from exploiting their numerical majority to make their various forms of monotheism the dominant belief system to the exclusion of all other beliefs and unbeliefs, every one of which has the same entitlement to equal treatment in the public sphere. The Bible, taught alongside other scriptures, is a fine addition to the curriculum. Study of everybody's modes of prayer, and the diversity of beliefs concerning the purpose and meaning of praying, could be offered without constitutional offense everywhere. The cases discussed establish that schools cannot be required to permit activities that seem innocuous to Christians only because they presume the acceptability to "nearly everyone" of a predominant role for expressions of Christian belief.

The primary problem in the essay is the near brush with unacceptable academic conduct noted above. The next most serious problem is the misstatement of history presented in the discussion of the Danbury Baptists and Thomas Jefferson. The next most serious problem is the failure to distinguish between "prohibiting the Bible" and "not requiring the Bible when proffered by students or parents for inclusion in the curriculum regardless of objection." The next most serious problem is the failure to distinguish between the Bible as an object of critical study and the Bible as an object of religious belief. The next most serious problem is the solemn special pleading for the curricular inclusion of the Bible as the cornerstone of Western culture and literature on supposedly non-Christian grounds. The next most serious problem is the failure to recognize the interest in secularization as a basis for religious tolerance, as well as secularism and atheism as substantive positions entitled to equal constitutional respect. All should be addressed in revision.


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r4 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:14 - IanSullivan
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