WASHINGTON (Jun. 17)
The United States Supreme Court today declared unconstitutional such religious practices in the public schools as readings from the Bible and recitation of the “Lord’s Prayer.” The Court’s decision was by a vote of 8 to 1.
The Court ruled on two appeals involving daily opening religious exercises in Maryland and Pennsylvania public schools. Justice Clark wrote the majority decision while Justice Stewart was the author of the dissenting statement.
The question was whether prayers and religious practices in public schools were in violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment which forbids a government role in establishment of religion and Federal interference in individual freedom of conscience on religious issues.
Justice Clark said that required religious exercises in schools were not “mitigated” by the fact that individual students may be excused “for the fact furnishes no defense to a claim of unconstitutionality under the establishment clause.” Nor is it a defense to claim that religious practices may be “relatively minor encroachments on the First Amendment,” he argued.
Justice Clark stressed that “the breach of neutrality that is today a trickling stream may all too soon become a raging torrent and, in the words of Madison, ‘it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.’ “
ARGUMENT FOR SCHOOL PRAYERS REJECTED; JUSTICE GOLDBERG’S STAND
Justice Clark rejected an argument that, when a majority which wants school prayers is prevented such exercise of religion their rights are infringed even in the school situation. He said it was never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality, he held.
While concurring in the decision that it is unconstitutional for the State through schools to “engage in unmistakably religious exercises,” Justices Goldberg and Harlan took a more conservative view and emphasized that the Court was not banning all religious aspects from public life.
Justice Goldberg stressed that “today’s decision does not mean that all incidents” of religion in the Government are banned. He said, in a statement endorsed by Justice Harlan, that a “delicate” determination was needed in each case to establish religious practices are actually an “accommodation” between Church and State and a genuine encroachment on religious liberty. He held that the courts must distinguish “between real threats and mere shadow.”
Justice Stewart, in his dissent from the Clark decision, charged that the court was “trampling on” religious freedom. He said “we err, if we do not recognize, as a matter of history and as a matter of the imperatives of our free society, that religion and government must necessarily interact in countless ways.”
TAX DEDUCTIONS FOR RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS REMAIN UNAFFECTED
Justice Brennan noted that “nothing we hold today questions the propriety of certain tax deductions or exemptions which incidentally benefit churches and religious organizations along with many secular charities and non-profit organizations.”
Justice Clark pointed out that nothing the Court said today would bar the study of the Bible or of religion “when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” But he reiterated that school exercises in the Maryland and Pennsylvania cases did not fall into those educational categories. Rather “they are religious exercises required by the states in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the government maintain strict neutrality neither aiding nor opposing religion.
The issue of “neutrality” toward religion, however, appeared to draw a more civil libertarian interpretation from Justice Clark and Justice Douglas than from Justice Goldberg. While Justice Goldberg sought to limit the scope of today’s ruling, in his interpretation of the need for neutrality of the State toward religion, Justice Clark went further and cited the need for rejection of religious encroachment by the majority. Justice Douglas, in concurring with Justice Clark, said the First Amendment does not say that some forms of an establishment of religion are allowed but says “no law respecting an establishment of religion shall be made.” He added that “what may not be done directly may not be done indirectly lest the establishment clause become a mockery.”