May 22, 1964
Do We Want Another Bible War?
A hundred years ago Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians fought each other in the courts -- and in the streets -- over the right of the State to compel Catholic school children to listen to readings from the King James Version of the Bible. In Massachusetts, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other states the use of public schools for religious instruction, usually described as "non-sectarian", was a bitter and divisive issue. In Maine a Jesuit priest was tarred and feathered. In Cincinnati the contending groups waged what came to be known as the "Cincinnati Bible War." There are those today who think we are headed for another such "Bible War." I hope they're wrong.
These old passions have been inflamed anew by
two recent decisions of the U. S. Supreme Court:
On both occasions the Court spoke loud and clear with just one dissenting opinion. Speaking recently of these decisions, Arizona's Walter Craig, president of the American Bar Association, said they were "clearly predictable from prior opinion of the Court, and no other decision would have been consistent with the dictates of the First Amendment." Nevertheless, charges were made that the Court had "expelled God from school", and many conscientious citizens took the decisions as indication that the court was hostile to religion. "They went and put the Negroes in our schools," one Southern congressman said, "and now they've taken God out."
Out of this controversy has come a movement to
amend the Constitution to permit such State-ordered exercises. Of about
160 resolutions introduced in Congress, nearly half contain the language
of the "Becker Amendment," first introduced by Rep. Frank J. Becker of
New York. Here is what the Becker Amendment says:
This Amendment, along with the other pending resolutions, is now the subject of lengthy hearings by the Judiciary Committee. Before it can become law it must 1) be reported favorably by the Committee, 2) pass the House of Representatives with a two-thirds majority, 3) pass the Senate by the same margin, and 4) be ratified by three-fourths of the States. If ratified, it would become the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.
Because certain church groups and other organizations have taken an intense interest in this proposal, I have been swamped by mail on the subject in recent weeks. In fact, the flow has exceeded that on any other issue arising in the last two years. The time has come for a discussion of the problem.
RELIGION IN AMERICA -- A TRADITION WORTH PRESERVING
In some countries of Europe you can't get milk deliveries if your religion is different from the majority prevailing in your area. In spite of our many troubles, we are fortunate that religious rivalry has not reached that point in this country.
We should recall that it was for religious freedom that many of our first settlers came to America. Government-prescribed prayer, as authorized by Parliament in the Book of Common Prayer, was the veryissue which prompted the Pilgrims to establish their colony in Massachusetts. Ironically some of the very groups which had opposed the established church in England proceeded to establish their own churches in the colonies and to write their own official prayers into law. In fact, by 1776 there were established churches in eight and possibly 10 of the colonies.
Because of this sad history James Madison included
a "freedom of religion" amendment in his proposed Bill of Rights, introduced
in the First Congress in 1789. After undergoing several revisions the amendment
was ratified and made part of the Constitution in 1791. I believe it has
contributed greatly to the atmosphere of religious tolerance which distinguishes
this country from many other nations of the world. It has not deprived
our country of religion but has drawn a rather distinct line between Church
and State. I would hate to see any change in that pattern. As Madison said:
THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS -- HISTORIC BATTLEGROUND
In our early history there were few public schools
as we know them today. Most schools were operated by the churches. As tax
funds came to be used for public education many of the religious aspects
of the old schools continued. In time this led to bitter controversy, especially
as Catholics immigrated into formerly Protestant areas. In one celebrated
case an 11-year-old Catholic boy in Boston was whipped with a stick for
30 minutes before consenting to recite the Protestant version of the Ten
Commandments. In the Cincinnati controversy Catholics were angrilly accused
of "atheism" because they objected to the same "voluntary" Bible-reading
rule being debated today. Out of these encounters came various conflicting
court decisions, none of them reaching the U. S. Supreme Court. However,
since 1940 the high court has taken jurisdiction in a number of such cases,
ruling that the 14th Amendment extends the provisions of the First Amendment
to acts of state and local governments. What the 14th Amendment says, in
part, is this:
As long ago as 1872 the Supreme Court of Ohio held that, "United with government, religion never rises above the merest superstition; united with religion, government never rises above the merest despotism; and all history shows that the more widely and completely they are separated, the better it is for both." Nevertheless, many of my correspondents apparently believe that until the recent decisions were handed down prayers and Bible-reading were the universal practice in public schools. The truth is that the Constitutions or courts in 10 states had long forbidden such exercises.
It may surprise my readers to know that Arizona is one of these states. (I will return to this later.) The other nine states are Illinois, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin, California and Nevada. Fifteen other states have forbidden prayers and Bible reading by statute. And another 10 states generally look with disfavor on such practices.
WHAT THE SUPREME COURT DID NOT SAY
So many words have been spoken that I think it
would be well to point out what the Supreme Court did not say:
As a lawyer I do not believe any such decisions will follow. As a Congressman I would oppose them if they were rendered. The issues now before us are entirely separate.
The current debate has turned more on emotion
than fact. Speakers on both sides have made too much of the "extremists"
on the other side. To be sure, there are some notorious racists and Supreme
Court-haters (for example, Gerald L. K. Smith and the John Birch Society)
campaigning for the Amendment. However, many prominent church leaders and
church groups also favor the Amendment. To be sure, there are militant
atheists, who frown on every reference to religion, opposing the
Amendment. But the great majority of the nation's church
organizations also oppose it. Here are a few typical views:
Obviously, the strong divergence of opinion, and the impact that such an Amendment might have on the Bill of Rights as it stands today, indicate the need for full and adequate debate and the most careful kind of study. Recently there was an effort through a device known as the Discharge Petition to bring this Amendment to the House floor without any committee study. I opposed this as extremely unwise and a grave risk to the Constitution.
ISSUES THAT NEED TO BE EXPLORED
There are a great many grave questions which need
sober reflection before this country plunges into revision of the Bill
of Rights. Here are some of them:
ARIZONA NOT AFFECTED
Now here's the big fact overlooked by nearly
all of my correspondents on this issue. The Supreme Court has not
"taken the Bible from Arizona schools" because daily recitation of Bible
passages and regular school prayers have never been there.
When the Arizona Constitution was adopted in 1912, Article II declared:
"...No public money ... shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious
worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment."
The First Arizona Legislature then passed this law, which is still on
Thus the Supreme Court ruling has made nochange in Arizona school practices, and the same is true of 24 other states with similar provisions. But passage of the Becker Amendment might invalidate existing Arizona laws and introduce a new element of interfaith friction in our communities. I'm proud of Arizona's schools, and I'd be reluctant to experiment with a successful pattern of 52 years' standing. I see no evidence that Arizona school children are less religious or moral than those in Alabama or Kansas, and I certainly don't regard Arizona (to use Gov. Wallace's expression) as a "godless state."
It is strange that many of the people writing in behalf of Mr. Becker's amendment have written on other occasions to denounce government interference with people's private affairs and individual freedoms. Yet they seem to believe that home and church can no longer be depended on, and that government must save religion by compulsory instruction.
America is a religious nation. Much of our strength rests on that fact. The First Amendment is at the very heart of our liberties and has successfully guaranteed our religious freedom for 170 years. I'm not ready to tinker with this or any other part of our Bill of Rights.
I intend to listen to all arguments, pro and con,
but I am inclined to agree with the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs
when it said:
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