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Co-operation of Church and State - Part III
In American Education

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The most important area of Church and State co-operation is that of education. It is also the most delicate because it involves something more than collaboration in external details and presupposes a degree of harmony on the deepest issues that affect a man’s relations with God and his fellowmen. There is room for serious difficulties even in the ideal situation where Church and State leaders share the same ideas about the nature of man and his final destiny, as seen in medieval Europe or in modern Spain. But where, as in America, the people are so widely divided in religious belief, we should expect the problem to be complicated beyond solution. Yet, unexpectedly, the history of the country shows that religion and the government have cooperated in the field of education in many ways, not just incidentally but through concerted effort, and with calculable benefits to both parties.

Bible Reading in Public Schools

Three stages are discernible in the history of Bible reading in the public schools. During the nineteenth century only one state, Massachusetts, made such reading obligatory by statute (1826), ostensibly because it was not necessary to place legal sanctions on a custom that was fairly universal from colonial times. As opposition to the practice increased, twelve states followed the lead of Massachusetts during the two decades from 1913. [1] A typical law was the one enacted by the District of Columbia, which is federal territory under the jurisdiction of Congress. “Each teacher,” it prescribes, “shall, as a part of the opening exercises, read, without note or comment, a portion of the Bible, repeat the Lord’s prayer, and conduct appropriate singing by the pupils.” [2] In direct contrast, eleven other states gave in to the negative criticism and passed laws which forbid the reading of the Bible in tax-supported schools on the grounds that such reading is a violation of the freedom of religion. [3] Actually, though, there is no statutory prohibition which identifies the Bible as forbidden literature but only directs that no sectarian books or periodicals may be used and then allows the courts to decide if the Scriptures are sectarian. Litigation surrounding the question in Illinois was a reaction to an abuse of the Bible as a means of indoctrination. Not only were passages read from the King James version, but the teacher added her own comments and then questioned the pupils on the meaning of what she had read. Certain taxpayers and members of the Catholic Church brought action against the school board. The court decided in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring that, “In our judgment the exercises mentioned in the petition constitute religious worship, and the reading of the Bible in the school constitutes sectarian instruction.” [4] Unfortunately the decision of 1910, which is still in effect, went beyond the intent of those who brought suit. They were not against the Bible as such, but against the use of a Protestant version with additional comment imposed without discrimination on all the children.

According to a recent survey, 13 states besides the District of Columbia require daily reading from the Bible in all public schools; 24 make such reading optional or permissible; and 11 are interpreted to forbid the practice as a result of court decisions to the contrary. It is estimated that most public schools in the country open their daily sessions with reading without comment from the Scriptures. Even in states where sectarian influence is forbidden, lawmakers generally do not consider the Bible sectarian. Several states, like Alabama, go beyond requiring or permitting the Old and New Testaments for daily reading. They offer in public high schools special elective courses on the Bible to be taken for credit toward graduation.

At time 1955 conference on religion and public education sponsored by the National Council of Churches, one of the recommendations stated that “Legislation is not generally necessary, but in states where laws now prohibit any use of the Bible in public schools, permissive legislation should be sought, allowing use of the Bible when it has bearing on courses of public school study.” [5] This is in keeping with the century-old policy of the Protestant churches to promote the use of Scripture in state-supported institutions. Catholics, as a rule, have been wary of approving the custom, at least officially. A notable exception was Cardinal Gibbons, who believed that “a judicious selection of Scripture readings; appropriate presentation of the various Scripture incidents, born of reflection on the passages read and scenes presented, cannot but contribute … to the better education of the children of our public schools.” [6]

It is highly significant that as often as a disputed case of Bible reading was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, the latter declined to assume jurisdiction, on the principle that this is a matter for each state to decide for itself.

Released Time Religious Instruction

Co-operative religious instruction for public school children was first organized in 1914 by William A. Wirt, superintendent of schools at Gary, Indiana. Pupils were released for instruction during regular school hours. The movement gradually spread to other cities, until by 1932 one out of ten school systems followed either the Gary system or the variant plan of “dismissed time,” which meant that students were let out of school an hour or so earlier one day a week for religion classes, usually outside the school building.

Before long released and dismissed time were brought before the courts under pressure from such agencies as the American Civil Liberties Union. Within five years there were two Supreme Court decisions on the subject. In the McCollum case (1948) the court decided that released time as practiced in Champaign, Illinois, “showed the use of tax-supported property for religious instruction,” and was therefore unconstitutional. [7] But the decision served only to brace the efforts of released time advocates like the International Council of Religious Education, which now urged Protestants to find other and more effective means to combat secularism in public education. As was hoped, the Supreme Court practically reversed itself in the Zorach school case (1952) discussed in the second article of this series. Apparently the court approved released time in New York on the score that religion classes were held off the school premises; but really there was a change in basic outlook. Instead of arguing, as in the McCollum case, that “complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion,” the court declared that “we cannot read into the Bill of Rights … a philosophy of hostility to religion,” and should therefore approve “when the state … cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs.” [8]

In 1949 the National Educational Association made a study of programs of religious education connected with public schools. Replies were received from 2,600 out of 5,100 school systems. The data showed that 26.8 per cent of the systems had some kind of religious program. This represents an increase of 150 per cent since 1932. Moreover 45.9 per cent of the cities with a population over 100,000 had released time religious instruction. On the legal side, in 1955 some nine states, including New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania, officially sanctioned the practice. Statute provisions are about the same in every state, as in Oregon, where the law provides that “Any child attending the public school, on application of his guardian or either parent, may be excused from such school for a period or periods not exceeding 120 minutes in any week to attend weekday schools giving instruction in religion.” [9]

Transportation to Parochial Schools

The Everson school bus case decided by the Supreme Court in 1947 is too well known to be treated here in detail. It is enough to isolate certain elements preceding and following the court’s judgment which highlight the government’s willingness to co-operate with religious bodies in the field of education. We shall not examine the animosity aroused in radical circles which are bent on nullifying the benefits of the Everson decision.

Up to 1946, eleven state courts had examined the legality of free bus transportation for children attending parochial schools, seven opposed and four in favor. Against this background, in 1947 the Supreme Court upheld (5 to 4) the constitutionality of the New Jersey bus law of 1941, which provided that “Whenever in any district there are children living remote from any schoolhouse, the board of education of the district may make rules and contracts for the transportation of such children to and from school, including transportation of such children to and from school other than a public school, except such school as is operated for profit in whole or in part.” [10] The law was contested by a taxpayer because the local town had reimbursed parents when their children rode to a parish school on the highway buses.

In its majority opinion, the court laid down the norm that the state “cannot exclude Catholics, Lutherans, Mohammedans, Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Non-Believers, Presbyterians, or the members of any other faith, because of their faith or lack of it, from receiving the benefits of public welfare legislation.” Correctly interpreted, the First Amendment “requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers; it does not require the state to be their adversary,” as would be the case if parochial school children were denied “tax-raised” public transportation. [11]

Many Protestants are greatly perturbed over this breach in the wall of separation between Church and State. The Seventh Day Adventists, who conduct 900 elementary schools of their own, were told to “not use buses which are operated at public expense.” [12] A general assembly of Methodist bishops protested that the verdict “carries with it a serious threat to our public educational system which is a bulwark of democracy.” [13] Baptist churchmen, representing 17 million adherents, declared, “We feel that the majority opinion must be acknowledged as turning back the hands of the clock as far as religious liberty and the separation of church and state are concerned.” [14] Catholics, on the other hand, believe that the Everson decision is a standing protest to those “who advocate secularism in education and in every department of our government.” [15]

In 1956 at least fifteen states had approved free transportation for all children, but in some cases only after heated litigation. Thus, in Kentucky the original statutes, did not discriminate against pupils attending parish schools, until ‘in 1942 the state supreme court ruled that this was unconstitutional. Three years later another decision qualified the previous ruling and allowed the county superintendents to provide public funds for transporting parochial children, as long as the money came from the general budget and not by special taxation. [16]

Free Textbooks to Parochial Schools

Provisions in state constitutions have until recently prohibited the appropriation of public funds for free textbooks to other than public schools. As far back as 1854, the Maine legislature decided that such appropriation would be assistance to religious sects. In 1922 a similar position was taken by the courts in New York. But in 1928 the Louisiana legislature decreed that no matter what institution was attended, the school board of education “shall provide … school books for school children free of cost.” [17] Cochran, a citizen and taxpayer, brought suit against the new law because it violated the state constitution which declared that “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury … in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister, or teacher thereof.” [18] He also contended that the Fourteenth Amendment was violated. The Supreme Court of Louisiana upheld the constitutionality of the textbook legislation because “the appropriations were made for the specific purpose of purchasing schoolbooks for the use of the school children of the state, free of cost to them… . The schools are not the beneficiaries of these appropriations. They obtain nothing from them, nor are they relieved of a single obligation because of them.” [19] On appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, a unanimous decision supported the lower court and defended the appropriations as an exercise of “taxing power … exerted for a public purpose. The legislation does not segregate private schools, or their pupils, as its beneficiaries… . Individual interests are aided only as the common interest is safeguarded.” [20]

Following the lead of Louisiana, Mississippi passed a law providing textbooks to be loaned to students in all qualified elementary schools. Contested in 1941, the law was upheld by the state supreme court whose ruling on the case is a masterpiece of clarity:

If the pupil may fulfil its duty to the state by attending a parochial school, it is difficult to see why the state may not fulfil its duty to the pupil by encouraging it “by all suitable means.” The state is under a duty to ignore the child’s creed, but not its need… . The state which allows the pupil to subscribe to any religious creed should not, because of his exercise of this right, proscribe him from benefits common to all. [21]

A number of other states now empower local school authorities to distribute textbooks free of charge to the pupils of parochial schools. The Oregon law, e.g., directs the respective school boards “to provide textbooks, prescribed or authorized by law, for the free use of all resident pupils enrolled and actually attending standard elementary schools.” [22] Within a year after the law was passed (1942), the state supreme court dismissed a petition to have the matter put to popular referendum.

Anti-Evolution Laws

A little known but highly pertinent area of religio-civil co-operation involves the prohibition by state law of teaching that man is descended from the lower animals. The movement which ended as severe legislation began as a crusade among Baptist and Presbyterian conservatives, led by the Baptist Dr. Curtis Lewis who first coined the term “fundamentalist” in 1920 and laid down the five principles of fundamentalism: an infallible Bible, the Virgin Birth, substitutionary atonement, physical resurrection of Christ and His imminent second coming. Lewis’ followers were especially concerned about the teaching of modern scientists on evolution which, they felt, contradicted the plain words of Genesis and therefore denied the inerrancy of Scripture. So serious had the issue become that in 1923 a group of prominent scientists and churchmen, including Robert Millikan the physicist, James Angell, president of Yale, and Bishop McConnell of the Methodist Church, issued what was intended to be a conciliatory statement. “It is a sublime conception of God,” they declared, “which is furnished by science … when it represents Him as revealing Himself through countless ages in the development of the earth as an abode for man and in the age-long in-breathing of life into its constituent matter, culminating in man with his spiritual nature and all his God-like powers.” [23]

But the fundamentalists were not pacified. Between 1923 and 1927, no less than ten states had anti-evolution bills presented to the legislature. Four of the ten were passed: in Florida (1923), Tennessee (1925), Mississippi (1926), and Arkansas (1927). They remain to this day a part of the educational policy in the respective territories. The Arkansas law was approved by popular vote with a majority of 45,000. It provides:

That it shall be unlawful for any teacher or other instructor in any university, college, normal, public school, or other institution of the state which is supported in whole or in part from public funds derived by state or local taxation to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals. [24]

Further provisions exclude textbooks which teach evolution and impose a penalty of five hundred dollars and dismissal from state service for violation.

The Tennessee law was passed without incident, but in 1927 was contested in a trial that has made constitutional history. John Scopes, a teacher in the public schools of Rhea County, was indicted and found guilty of denying the story of creation as given in Genesis and of teaching instead that man was descended from brute animals. Educators and lawyers were alert to the vital issues at stake, so the trial took on national proportions - further dramatized by the personalities who faced each other as legal counsel: the agnostic criminal lawyer, Clarence Darrow, for Scopes, and William Jennings Bryan for the state. Bryan defended a literalist interpretation of the Bible. It was preposterous, he said, to hold that the earth was millions of years old when Genesis clearly shows that creation goes back only to 4004 B.C. Darrow ridiculed this crude effort which “makes the Bible the yardstick to measure every man’s intelligence and every man’s learning.” He called the Tennessee statute “the most brazen and bold attempt to destroy liberty since the Middle Ages.” [25]

While sustaining the constitutionality of the law, the judges practically limited its prohibition to the teaching of materialism. There was no further appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal Aid to Veterans' Education

The largest scale Church and State co-operative on a financial level was occasioned by the late World War and the United Nations’ conflict in Korea. First in sequence was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly called the GI Bill of Rights, which provided for one year’s education with subsistence allowance. In addition, the veteran was eligible for a period of study equal to his period of service between September 16, 1940 and July 25, 1947. The period of education was not to exceed four years and had to be completed by July 25,1956. When America entered the Korean War, Congress approved new legislation for the veterans, granting subsidies to cover one and one-half days of schooling for each day of service and a maximum of thirty months. A third federal subsidy guaranteed the vocational training of disabled veterans from World War II and service in Korea.

Financial details varied for the different groups, and the original law was several times modified by Congress. But, in general, veterans of the World War were entitled to a monthly subsidy allowance up to $120 and a yearly maximum of $500 paid to the school for tuition, books and necessary supplies; Korean servicemen could receive up to $160 per month in allowance to cover living expenses and school costs. Disabled veterans might receive for vocational training up to $120 and more, according to disability and the number of dependents, which the Veterans Administration pays directly to the school.

The outstanding feature of these appropriations is the freedom allowed the ex-servicemen and women to choose any institution of learning and any course of studies they desired. As a result, church-affiliated colleges and secondary schools received their largest financial support from the federal government in the history of the country. As of October 1, 1955, it is estimated that 7,270,000 veterans had used the educational benefits to which they were entitled by law. Conservatively one-fifth attended colleges and secondary schools under church auspices. In the peak year 1948 - 1949, the government spent $3,058,578,230 in federal education aid to veterans, of which $526,476,000 went to colleges. Half the college and university enrollment that year (1,290,115) was in private institutions, most of which were somehow church-affiliated.

While complete figures are not available, we know that during the four years of 1949 to 1952 a total of 20,502 veterans were attending divinity schools in various denominations and having their education financed by the American government.

An interesting sidelight on the degree to which the state collaborated with religion is the special consideration given to veterans in the sacred ministry. The basic law allowed an interruption of studies “for a period of not more than twelve consecutive months.” Penalty for going beyond this time was the withdrawal of subsidy unless proof were given that the interval was occasioned by conditions beyond the person’s control. There was, however, one exception:

Where a veteran who is in active pursuit of a program of education or training is appointed by the responsible governing body of an established church, officially charged with the selection and designation of missionary representatives, according to its practice, to serve the church in an official missionary capacity and is thereby prevented from the continuous pursuit of his studies, the veteran will be deemed to have suspended such program beyond his control…. In such a case, the veteran will be required to resume active pursuit of his program following termination of his missionary service. [26]

Quite as important as the financial support given to church schools and religious education was the general absence of adverse criticism of the program during the twelve years of its operation. Timid worries that “these arrangements must not be extended too far” were rare. [27] Almost unique was the fear that the Catholic hierarchy would seize upon “these borderline cases that lie between the fields of education and welfare to argue that Catholic education itself is charged with a public interest and is therefore entitled to full public support.” [28] The all-but-universal opinion was expressed by Senator Wagner in a national broadcast when the first GI Bill was signed by President Roosevelt. It was hailed as a contribution to make America “a land where every man has a chance to work and develop to his fullest capacity.” [29]


A reasonable conclusion from the foregoing study of Church and State co-operation is that, in spite of our religious pluralism, there is more than a core of sound philosophy and Christianity that is shared by the majority of citizens. Shortly after his visit to the United States, Pope Pius XII commented on the fact in a letter addressed to the American bishops. “Reverence for the faith of Christ,” he wrote, “is a holy and established principle of the American people.” [30] Nearly two centuries of unparalleled liberty for the true Church are a confirmation of this judgment, as they are also a warning not to be complacent, but to be conscious of the opposition, in order to safeguard the future.

Indifference in this matter would have serious consequences, since the history of modern Church and State relations in so many countries is a story of attempted subjugation of Catholic rights and privileges by political powers. Organized hostility to the Church in America is nothing strange, but its appeal to judicial and legal instruments to cripple the Church’s apostolate, especially in education, is relatively new. The general pattern is to advertise the “growing power of Rome” which is then interpreted as alien to the State and must therefore be neutralized. It is imperative for Catholics not to misjudge the issues involved or to underestimate their opponents’ zeal.

The case for political secularism has been stated with brutal frankness by John Dewey who is regarded by admirers as “the foremost philosopher in the history of America and its greatest educational thinker.” No one, they claim, has “so profoundly and in so many areas of human endeavor influenced and determined his own age.” [31] According to Dewey, we should distinguish the apparent from the real basis for Church and State separation in the United States. “If one inquires,” he says, “why the American tradition is so strong against any connection of state and church … the immediate and superficial answer is not far to seek. The cause lay largely in the diversity and vitality of the various denominations … each animated by a jealous fear that, if any connection of state and church were permitted, some rival denomination would get an unfair advantage.” [32] But the true reason lies deeper, in the very notion of the State conceived by our founding fathers:

This nation was born under conditions which enabled it to appropriate the idea that the state life, the vitality of the social whole, is of more importance than the flourishing of any segment or class… . The lesson of the two and a half centuries lying between the Protestant revolt and the formation of the nation was well learned as respected the necessity of maintaining the integrity of the state against all divisive ecclesiastical divisions. Doubtless many of our ancestors would have been somewhat shocked to realize the full logic of their own attitude with respect to the subordination of churches to the state - falsely termed the separation of church and state. [33]

In recent years we have witnessed a growing tendency to test the validity of this anti-religious statism in the nation’s courts and legislature. So far the record of achievement has been poor; the latest important failure was the refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to review the California tax exemption for church-affiliated grade and secondary schools. But the spirit behind these efforts is not to be ignored. It needs to be counterpoised by a better understanding of America’s heritage of Church and State collaboration.


With this issue Father Hardon (his Protestant Churches of America is reviewed on page 000) closes his series on Church and State co-operation. We feel that this series will be kept by our readers for frequent use.

[1] In 1955 the National Council of Churches reported the following states as having mandatory Bible reading in the public schools: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee.

[2] By-Laws and Laws of the District of Columbia Board of Education, 1926, Chapter 6, Section 4.

[3] According to the National Council of Churches, the Bible is considered a sectarian book in Arizona, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

[4] “People ex rel. Ring v. Board of Education of District 24,” 245 Illinois, 334 (1910).

[5] International Journal of Religious Education, March, 1956, p. 29. The writer attended this three-day conference as an observer representing the Jesuit Educational Association.

[6] A. S. Will, Life of Cardinal Gibbons, Vol. I, New York, 1922, p. 478.

[7] Cases on constitutional Law (Noel T. Dowling, edit.), Brooklyn, 1950, p. 1073.

[8] Supreme Court of the United States, No. 431 (Private Printing), p. 5.

[9] School Laws of the Forty-Eight States, Seattle, 1956: (Oregon, Sec. 111-3014, p. 21).

[10] New Jersey Laws, 1941, c. 191, p. 581.

[11] “Everson v. Board of Education,” 330 United States, 1, pp. 13-16.

[12] Liberty, Fourth Quarter, 1947.

[13] Churchman, May 15, 1947.

[14] Op. cit., March 1, 1947.

[15] Statement of the N.C.W.C. through the chairman of its administrative board, Archbishop McNicholas of Cincinnati, in reply to the Manifesto of the newly organized P.O.A.U., which was charged with assuming that “their attempt to have the Supreme Court reverse its decision (in the Everson case) is a patriotic virtue, but that it is criminal for others to seek an interpretation of an amendment to the Constitution.” New York Herald Tribune, January 26, 1948.

[16] Alvin W. Johnson and Frank H. Yost, Separation of Church and State in the United States, Minneapolis, 1948, p. 158.

[17] Louisiana Laws, 1928, Act No. 100, Sec. 1.

[18] Constitution of Louisiana, Article 53.

[19] Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education,” 281 United States, 370.

[20] Ibid. The U.S. Supreme Court merely affirmed the decision of the lower tribunal and added a commentary of its own. It is scarcely a coincidence that this case has been given slight attention in Protestant literature on church and state relations. The position taken by the state and federal courts is too outspokenly in favor of distributive justice towards private and parochial schools.

[21] “Chance v. Mississippi State Textbook Rating and Purchasing Board,” 200 Southern Reporter, 706 (1941).

[22] School Laws (Oregon), Sec. 111-2015, 1941 Amendment.

[23] New York Times, May 27, 1923.

[24] Arkansas Statutes, Title 80, Sec. 80-1627.

[25] Luther A. Weigle, American Idealism, New Haven, 1928, p. 229.

[26] School Laws (Federal Legislative School Service, 1953), “Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act,” Sec. 21.2012 Amended.

[27] Anson P. Stokes, Church and State in the United States, Vol. II, New York, 1950, p. 721.

[28] Paul Blanshard, American Freedom and Catholic Power, Boston, 1950, p. 89.

[29] Congressional Record, June 23, 1944, p. 6588.

[30] Pope Pius XII, Sertum Laetitiae (Encyclical to the American Hierarchy), New York: Paulist Press, 1940, p. 3.

[31] William H. Kilpatrick, “Apprentice Citizens,” Saturday Review of Literature, October 22, 1949, p. 12. Also Paul A. Schilpp, Commemorative Essays, Stockton, Calif., 1930, p. 41.

[32] John Dewey, Characters and Events, Vol. II, London, 1929, pp. 507, 508.

[33] Ibid., p. 508.

Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Vol. 57 - #6, March 1957, pp. ???-???

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