1891 – Religion and School

Religion And School

Introduction: The issue of the separation of church and state has been an issue which we familiar with in the 21st century. This debate, however, extends back in time to the 19th century. The following is an early account of that discussion from 1891.

An Official Opinion

The Bible Must Be Excluded From the Public Schools

Washington Standard October 2, 1891

Hon. R. B. Bryan, State Superintendent of Instruction, asked the State’s Attorney for a legal opinion on the ensuing questions. We give the material parts of the opinion in reply.

“Can a teacher employed in the common schools of this State, without violating any laws of the State, or any provisions of the State constitution, conduct devotional or religious exercises at the opening of the school day as prescribed by law, by the singing of hymns or other sacred music, or by reading passages from the bible, without comment, or by repeating or causing to be repeated (without comment), what is usually known as the Lord’s prayer.”

The Protestant Christian founds his religion upon the King James version of the bible; the Catholic Christian founds his on the Douhey version; the Hebrew on the Talmud; and the Mohammedan on the Korean. Each of those works is distinctively a religious book and the stated reading of either of them as a part of the school curriculum would seem to be clearly, not only a religious but a sectarian exercise and instruction.

The fact that the great majority of the people of this State are Christians can not in any way affect this question; for if there was only one Christian in the State, that one Christian would be equally entitled to the protection of that constitutional guaranty as he is under existing circumstances, and it would be a cowardly court that would refuse to extend it to him simply because he was in the minority.

But does the conclusion that the stated reading of the bible in the public school is religious worship and instruction lead to the further conclusion that it is in violation of any part of the constitutional provisions above cited?

The school building, as well as the time of the teacher during school hours, both belong to the public; both are public property, both are paid for by taxation, the burden of which bears equally upon the Protestant, the Catholic and the Hebrew; and I can not resist the conclusion that in the time occupied in such reading both are applied to religious exercise and instruction.

“The question, therefore, seems to narrow down to this: Is the reading of the bible in the schools – not merely selected passages there from, but the whole of it – sectarian instruction of the pupils? In view of the fact already mentioned that the bible contains numerous doctrinal passages, upon some of which the peculiar creed of almost every religious sect is based, and that such passages may reasonably be understood to indicate the doctrines predicated upon them, an affirmative answer to the question seems unavoidable. Any pupil of ordinary intelligence who listens to the reading of the doctrinal portions of the bible, will be more or less instructed thereby in the doctrines of the divinity of Jesus Christ, the eternal punishment of the wicked, the authority of the priesthood, the binding force and efficiency of the sacraments, and many other conflicting sectarian doctrines. A most forcible demonstration of the accuracy of this statement is found in certain reports of the American Bible Society of its work in Catholic countries (referred to in one of the arguments), in which instances are given of the conversion of several persons from Romanism through the reading of the scriptures alone; that is to say, the reading of the Protestant or King James version of thebible converted Catholics to Protestants without the aid of comment of exposition. In those cases the reading of the bible certainly was sectarian instruction.”

“If then, such a reading of the bible is worship, can there be any doubt but what the school-room in which it is so statedly read is a ‘place of worship’ within the meaning of the same clause of the constitution? Counsel seems to argue that such place of worship should be confined to some church edifice, or places where the members of a church statedly worship. Some of the earlier constitutions, having similar clauses, used the words ‘building’ and ‘church.’ Manifestly, the words ‘place of worship’ were advisedly used, as applicable to any ‘place’ or structure where worship is statedly held, and which the citizen is ‘compelled to attend’ or the taxpayers are compelled ‘to erect or support.’ The mere fact that only a small fraction of the school hours is devoted to such worship in no way justifies such use, as against an objecting taxpayer. If the right be conceded, then the length of time se devoted becomes a matter of discretion. If such right does not exist, then any length of time, however short, is forbidden.

But one question remains to be considered: your inquiry included the singing of sacred songs. The term “sacred songs” is too vague and indefinite to be susceptible of an exact definition, and it would be impossible for me to say whether the singing of sacred songs might or might not be a violation of the principles of the constitution.

Sacred songs are ordinarily poetry of a moral and elevating character set to music, and ordinarily speaking have no sectarian tendencies. Many of them are enjoyed indiscriminately by all denominations, sects and creeds who use a common language.

There is not doubt that a teacher by the systematic selection of sacred songs as do have a sectarian tendency and causing them to be sung in public schools as a religious and devotional exercise, might be guilty of a violation of the constitution; but it is equally manifest that the pupils of our common schools may have the pleasure an the benefit of many if not most of such songs, and the provisions of our constitution be in no wise infringed.

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