Church And State Essay

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The question of the relationship between church and state is and has been a pervasive problem that pervades all aspects of education in all countries and is not peculiar to this generation. In the United States the relationship is complicated by many religions and the constitutional perspective. The issue should be considered from the perspective of the one and the many, e pluribus unum. One signifies unity and cohesion; many signifies diversity and division.

Though a religious nation since its inception, the United States has believed in the separation of church and state and used the public schools to bring different religious faiths together. The First Amendment to the Constitution, the nonestablishment clause, is the basis for court decisions involving church and state questions. There was nothing in the Constitution that set limits on what the states could do in the field of education. At first the Bill of Rights only guaranteed religious freedom and due process at the federal level. In 1868 the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which applied the Bill of Rights to the state level. This entry looks at how the relationship of church and state has evolved and how the Supreme Court has attempted to decide issues.

Early Years

During the colonial period in American history, church and state were united. Though the colonists came to America seeking religious freedom, their form of government only provided rights to those who practiced the state religion. In New England, the fundamental law was the Bible. In the South, the church was different, Anglican, but the practices were similar. The state enforced financial support for the established church. It gave moral and legal support to doctrines of worship resulting in no freedom of worship. Other colonies had more liberal practices.

As the United States developed after the Revolutionary War, the founders had to reconcile these opposing thoughts and traditions as they brought about the separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson advocated religious freedom in his “Bill for Religious Freedom,” which was enacted by the Virginia legislature in 1786. The First Amendment to the newly enacted Constitution calls for a separation of church and state and states that Congress cannot legislate the establishment of religion or limit its practice. Subsequently, the First Amendment became the basis for many Supreme Court decisions regarding the relationship of church, state, and schools.

The church’s influence on education continued in the early part of the National Period, which began in 1789. The number of churches rose, as did the number of different religious groups and denominations. This movement was happening as the state legislatures were moving to separate from the church’s influence. There was a lot of discussion about the relationship between the church and the state and the support of disestablishment. In 1833, Massachusetts became the last state to disestablish religion.

The common school movement began in the first part of the nineteenth century. The common school, a school that was publicly supported and controlled, was to be the place to bring students of different backgrounds together to provide a type of “melting pot” for different religious groups. As the common school movement grew and prospered, and as the numbers of Catholic immigrants increased, the Catholic bishops began to be concerned about what they called secularism in the schools. The number of Catholics increased from 1789, the time of the appointment of Bishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in America, to 1884 when the Third Plenary Council of Bishops mandated the establishment of Catholic schools.

Catholic Schools

The bishops’ concerns focused on the following public school practices: the reading of the King James version of the Bible, the saying of Protestant prayers, the singing of Protestant hymns, and anti-Catholic textbooks. They were also concerned about secularism and godlessness in the schools. While voicing these concerns, the bishops were attempting to gain public funds for parochial schools. They argued that the Catholics were taxpayers and were entitled to have public funds for their own system of parochial schools.

In 1884, the Third Plenary Council met and called for the establishment of parochial schools. A school had to be built near every Catholic Church within two years and all the parents in the congregation were required to send their children to these schools, unless the bishop approved another form of Catholic education. The bishops also expected the teachers to be qualified and certified.

The Protestants reacted strongly to these mandates, and anti-Catholic publications such as Josiah Strong’s Our Country appeared. Strong complained that the American Catholics’ allegiance was only to the pope. Nonetheless, the parochial school movement flourished and other religions also established their own schools. The United States became a pluralistic country made up of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and those of other religious faiths. There were also agnostics and atheists adding to the common mix. The schools tried to meet the needs of these diverse groups, moving beyond the idea of a melting pot to being guided by cultural pluralism, including not only religious groups but also different racial and ethnic groups.

Supreme Court Rulings

As the public schools grew and changed, the issue of the relationship of church and state also came into focus more, as evidenced by the increasing number of Supreme Court cases which dealt with church and state issues. These cases took many forms and can be categorized as follows: free exercise, public financial aid to church-related schools, religious education in public schools, and religious exercises in public schools. It was established that in order for any religious activity in a public school to be constitutional, it must pass three tests. It must have a secular purpose; it must have a primary effect which neither advances nor prohibits religion; it must avoid excessive entanglement between religion and the public school.

The Supreme Court case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) is a good example of a test of the free exercise of religion. This case dealt with the question of whether nonpublic schools have the right to exist. It involved the Hill Military School and the Society of Sisters parochial school. Oregon passed a law in 1922 mandating that every child between the ages of eight and sixteen must attend public school. The Court ruled against Oregon, saying the state could not destroy private schools and that parents have the right to choose their child’s education. Other cases that followed upheld students’ right to freely exercise their religion.

The Catholic bishops tried to obtain public funds for Catholic schools beginning in the nineteenth century. Though unsuccessful overall, they were able to make some inroads. Good examples of these successes are the early public financial aid Supreme Court cases. The case of Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township in 1947, which allows for free bus transportation for all schools, was decided based on the child-benefit theory. This means that when aid is given, it is not given to benefit the school directly, but rather to benefit the child. The court has ruled over the years that there can be no reimbursement for teacher salaries, but auxiliary services can be provided through the local public school. It is also allowable for the state to provide vouchers to students to attend religious schools.

The Supreme Court also addressed the issue of released time during the school day for religious education. In the McCollum v. Board of Education in 1948 in Illinois, the Court ruled that there could be no released time given for religious instruction in public schools. Later, in 1952, the Court ruled in Zorach v. Clauson in New York that time could be given to students for religious instruction off site. Religious groups are also permitted to meet in schools as a result of the Equal Access Law that was passed in 1984, even though the Court had ruled earlier that this was not constitutional.

Many school prayer cases have been heard by the Court. The best known case is that of Engel v. Vitale in 1962. The New York Board of Regents required a nondenominational prayer in the schools. Engel complained that this violated the First Amendment, and the Court ruled that no government agency can require prayer in the schools. Other cases involving prayer at graduation, sports activities, and moments of silence followed with similar results.

The issue of the relationship between church and state in education continues to present challenges in a diverse country with many religious faiths. The questions recur in different forms and are reconsidered and sometimes reinterpreted by the courts because the Constitution remains a living document.


  1. Fellman, D. (Ed.). (1976). The Supreme Court and education. New York: Teachers College Press.
  2. Hitchcock, J. (2004). The Supreme Court and religion in American life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  3. Marty, M. (2004). The Protestant voice in American pluralism. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  4. McCluskey, N. (Ed.). (1964). Catholic education in America: A documentary history. New York: Teachers College Press.
  5. Pfeffer, L. (1967). Church, state, and freedom. Boston: Beacon Press.

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