On the surface, it seems like 2022 was a year of conservative triumph in the courts and in schools, as U.S. Supreme Court decisions about religion and education joined other precedent-smashing opinions about abortion rights and gun control. The school decisions seemed to fulfill long-held conservative dreams about pushing prayer back into public classrooms and diverting tax funding to explicitly religious schools.
But looking at the language of these rulings — especially Justice Neil M. Gorsuch’s majority decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District — points to another conclusion. These rulings unwittingly opened the door to a secular vision for America’s public schools by emphasizing the need to look at history, especially the original intention of the founders, when making decisions on the role of religion in public schools.
In Kennedy, a football coach insisted on his right to lead students in prayer after a football game. On its face, the case seemed open-and-shut. The Supreme Court had ruled in 2000, for instance, that students could not lead prayers at public school football games. It seemed to follow that teachers and coaches could not as well.
To evade that precedent, Gorsuch turned to a 1963 decision, Abington School District v. Schempp, but flipped it on its head. “‘[T]he line,’” Gorsuch wrote, quoting Justice William Brennan’s much-quoted concurring opinion in Schempp, “that courts and governments ‘must draw between the permissible and the impermissible’” has to “accor[d ] with history and faithfully reflec[t] the understanding of the Founding Fathers.”
With this, Gorsuch hoped to cram prayer back into public schools. He imagined that in the time of the Founding Fathers, religion -- and specifically an evangelical Protestant kind of Christian religion -- was welcomed into schools and government institutions.
Despite Gorsuch’s efforts, however, the real history is much more complicated, and the founders were decidedly mixed on the proper role of religion in public schools.
For one thing, it is utterly anachronistic to talk about “public schools” in the 1780s and 1790s. They simply did not exist in a recognizable form. But the founding generation did have a variety of different visions for the future of public schools and how they should function.
Some founders, like Thomas Jefferson, explicitly and intentionally barred religion from the public schools they had imagined. In 1779, Jefferson offered his vision of what a public school system might look like. He listed the subjects to be taught — “the Latin and Greek languages, English grammar, geography, and the higher part of numerical (arithmetic)” — conspicuously leaving out any instruction in religious ideas. The omission was intentional. “Instead of putting the Bible and Testament” in the hands of schoolchildren, Jefferson wrote in 1781, children should instead learn “the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American History.”
Jefferson was far from alone. Noah Webster, the famous dictionary writer and textbook author, envisioned public schools as explicitly civic — not religious — institutions. In his early textbooks, Webster even went through old classics and removed references to God and Christianity. For instance, in an early reader, Webster took out the famous Puritan opening line from the New England Primer: “A. In Adam’s Fall, We sinned all.” Webster replaced it with a more cheerful, American, secular line: “A. Was an Apple-pie made by the cook.”
Certainly, some prominent founders assumed that truly American public schools must inculcate the Christian religion. When Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush envisioned a new system of public schools, he sketched a definition of public education that some of today’s conservatives might like. As Rush explained, the “only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion.” And the correct American religion, Rush made clear, “is that of the New Testament.”
Yet even Rush made some stipulations to ensure that the government’s needs would take definite priority in all questions of education. Children, Rush specified, must be seen as “public property,” with their careers guided first by the government’s needs and only second by their own private desires. They must be taught to “forsake and even forget” their family if the state demanded it.
Moreover, while the founders had no single opinion on the role of religion in school, they tended to agree on two broad issues. First, in language that has been lost and distorted by today’s conservatives, Americans in the late 1700s and early 1800s usually agreed that any religion in public schools must be aggressively “nonsectarian.” By that, they meant that public schools must exclude any religious idea that was considered controversial at the time — or any idea that was specific only to one religious group and not widely shared as a generic moral truth.
Did Christians need an adult baptism, as many Baptists insisted? Were Christians really devoid of free will, as some Congregationalists still preached? Was Jesus merely a sublime teacher of morals, as Deists believed? These questions might seem finicky now, but in the late 1700s they could spark riots and bloodshed. The founders did not agree on much, but they agreed that public schools must fervently avoid any whiff of religious controversy.
And perhaps more important, the Founding Fathers — as well as the founding mothers and their children — agreed that any truly public school could not be run by a church for religious reasons. They believed that a public school had to be something that promoted purely public purposes. They thought a public school must teach citizens how to protect their republic, not how to save their souls.
This year’s Supreme Court decisions contradict those founding principles. They cram controversial religious ideas into public schools and funnel public funding to church schools. Instead of answering difficult questions about the proper role of religion in public schools, Gorsuch’s opinion only raises a host of new, unsolvable dilemmas.
If today’s lines are to be drawn based on the dreams of the founding generation, does that mean broad support for Rush’s Christian schools, wherein families lose their right to control their children’s education? Or does it mean Jefferson’s secular ones, in which the Bible takes a back seat to every other subject?
The founders offered no clear guidance or consensus on the matter, creating a real problem for conservatives today. If the courts try to follow Gorsuch’s opinion and look to the Founding Fathers for answers, they will be sure to find perspectives advocating for more secular schools. They will find opposition to sending tax dollars to church schools. The supposed triumph of conservative ideas will instead turn into a rejection of their controversial edicts.
Adam Laats is a professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY) and author of “Fundamentalist U.” and “The Other School Reformers.”
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