Reviewed by Colin Glennon, Department of Political Science, Fort Lewis College. Email: crglennon [at] fortlewis.edu.
While most constitutional law scholars point to Supreme Court rulings from the mid-twentieth century as establishing church-state jurisprudence, in The Bible, the School, and the Constitution Steven Green details events a century earlier that set the stage prior to Engel v.Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp. In a major contribution to the perpetual conflict between church and state, Green traces the debate from formation of early public schools in America with intensive study of the debate surrounding the proper role of religion in the nation’s schools, the School Question as it came to be known, from 1869 to 1876. As Green declares: “One cannot appreciate the Supreme Court’s modern church-state jurisprudence without understanding the development of the School Question during the nineteenth century” (p.8).
The goal of this book is clearly established when Green states that “modern critics of church-state separation have been quick to simplify the passions of the period and condemn the rhetoric while ignoring the substantive discussions that took place” (p.9). Green aims to correct that misconception, but he is not simply recalling an interesting historical narrative. Green is, in his way, defending the astute awareness of the debate’s participants of the meaning the School Question held in context of the larger issue of the relationship between government and its citizens.
A common theme throughout the book is clarifying the depth of the School Question in its original context. Green points out that while today religious activity in public schools and the direction of public funds to parochial schools are distinct and separate matters of debate, this was not always the case: “For the nation’s first 150 years, controversies over school prayer and school funding were inseparable” (p.7). In fact, Green points out that initially the debate over teaching religious morality in school centered on the best way to do so, not whether or not it was to be done. It is here that Green clarifies an important point; early public schools focused on presenting nonsectarian education, but this is not to be confused with secular education as we understand the term today. Schools would strive to teach students to be good citizens and moral people, but do so with a nondenominational curriculum.
The first two chapters provide a wealth of background knowledge about the rise of public education and its relationship with religion. In great detail Green describes the process of establishing public schools in the United States and the role that key officials like Horace Mann played in the process. Mann was integral in establishing nonsectarian standards for schools that were based on the Bible and shared religious ideas but [*294] not limited to protestant beliefs specifically. These chapters explore the notion that school reformers as early as the 1830s were concerned with the use of religious instruction in the classroom. Soon the dominant protestant majority began to feel pressure from a growing Catholic population concerned their children were being indoctrinated in the nonsectarian schools. By the 1850s this battle would be waged in the Courts.
Green points out that the “No funding principle,” the idea that public resources not be used for funding of religious schools, developed in a similarly contested manner. Initial local schools were “frequently a hybrid of private-religious-public endeavors” (p.47). This setup was practical for the time but ultimately quite problematic and one that state and local governments soon turned away from. State legislatures passed laws restricting the use of public funds to support parochial schools in cities throughout the late 1830s and 1840s. By the late 1850s even the most religiously homogeneous populations had similar statutes in place. As it appeared to be reaching its zenith however, the School Question would be temporarily tabled as the growing regional conflict in the United States and resulting Civil War would dominate political discussion for the next decade.
Chapter 3 focuses on a “The Cincinnati ‘Bible War’ of 1869-1873,” essentially providing a case study which illustrates the School Question debate that was taking place across the United States at the time. The chapter focuses on the case of Minor v Board of Education which would lead to Ohio becoming the first state to ban unmediated Bible readings in public schools. Green persuasively argues that this case is “the most important church-state holding that precedes the incorporation of the First Amendment by the United States Supreme Court” (p.93). Green details the controversy by recounting the efforts of each side in rallying support by making use of periodicals from the period to capture the mood of the debate. The evidence unquestionably features constitutional arguments at the forefront of the School Question during this era; this was not simply a fanatical argument. Ultimately the Ohio Supreme Court ruled to uphold the local school board’s authority to exclude the Bible from public school practices. Arguing that nonsectarian curriculum could never exist and that the ability of officials to develop consensus as to which parts of the Bible were applicable to all was a fallacy, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed with the school board’s solution to remove the Bible from its public schools. Justice Welch concluded that the state “can have no religious opinions” (p.133).
Chapters 4 and 5 detail several constitutional amendments proposed to address the role religion should play in American society. Green describes The Christian Amendment which aimed to insert an affirmation of God’s sovereignty in the constitution, and the Religious Freedom Amendment, which was in effect an “enlargement of the First Amendment” (p.163), but also applied the ban on religious preferences to state governments as well as the federal government. These proposals reflect competing preferences of the proper relationship between church and state, with the Religious Freedom Amendment aiming to build off the momentum gained from defeating the [*295] Christian Amendment. Each proposed amendment obviously failed to receive support necessary for ratification, but their frequent discussion in Congress and the media in the 1870s further demonstrates the saliency of the issue during this time period.
Chapter 5 highlights the Blaine Amendment, one of the most debated and controversial amendments ever proposed to the United States constitution. The Blaine Amendment was concerned with the funding aspect of the school question, and “sought to apply the proscriptions of the First Amendment religious clauses to the actions of state and local governments while expressly prohibiting the appropriation of public funds to support any school under the control of any religious sect or denomination” (p. 180). Green describes the Blaine Amendment debate with intricate details that distinguish this work from previous scholarship of the same nature. He is careful to place the “Funding Crisis” of the 1870s in its proper context, and explains that the Blaine Amendment was more than one proposal but rather is correctly understood as a series of proposals made during the controversy. Voting on the issue became political theater as different amended versions were debated in congress as the 1876 presidential election approached. Ultimately the measure was narrowly defeated, but the tone of the discussion had been established, and the debate over the Blaine Amendment in the 1870s would set the parameters that would impact constitutional jurisprudence into the Twentieth century.
In Chapter 6 Green concludes by summarizing the legacy of the school question leading into the era of the discussion with which we are now familiar. Green highlights examples of notions advocated by the likes of Horace Mann, Orestes Brownson, Francis Spear, Samuel Spear, and William Torrey among many others which “laid the foundation for the legal theories that the United States Supreme Court would adapt a century later” (p.225). Green explains that previous examinations of the issue have excessively focused on the debates surrounding the Blaine Amendment as representative of the entire era. As Green more than adequately demonstrates in this book, to do so is not accurate and simplifies a complex series of events that shaped church-state doctrine in the United States in the nineteenth century. Of course Green points out that the issue does not entirely leave the national consciousness after the 1870s, yet not until the Supreme Court considers the meaning of the Establishment Clause in the 1930s does the issue reach the saliency of the era that Green focuses on. By the 1940s the Court decides both the Everson and McCollum cases which Green suggests the impact of the nineteenth century School Question in shaping the opinions of more contemporary justices. While noting that the Court has predominately not wavered in its Establishment Clause rulings, despite less consistent rulings on the funding question, Green concludes that on the Supreme Court “the legacy of the School Question remains dominant” (p.257).
Green’s writing style is one that allows the reader to easily follow this historical narrative while differentiating from at times overlapping and complex terminology. The book is extremely [*296] detailed and well organized. The necessary background information is included for readers without previous knowledge of the subject while many new insights are explored which will engage readers more familiar with the history of church-state relations in the United States. It is worth noting that the primary sources used by Green are extraordinarily helpful in providing contemporary context. His use of newspapers and other periodicals from the period are key is establishing Green’s argument that the debate was more complex than some modern day constitutional scholars have suggested.
Overall this book is rich with information and should be considered required reading for anyone interested in constitutional questions surrounding the separation of church and state, the history of the formation of public schools in the United States, or those with a curiosity toward religious history in public policy. Scholastically this book would appropriately serve a class focused on the constitutional history of the Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, or First Amendment generally. Green’s work best serves an audience of advanced undergraduates or masters students with an interest in the subject, and should be required reading in any course specifically designed to examine the constitutionality of religious doctrine. Additionally it serves admirably as supplemental reading in a Bill of Rights, First Amendment, or Civil Liberties course.
Abington School District v. Schempp 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor 23 Ohio St. 211 (1872).
Engel v. Vitale 370 U.S. 421 (1962).
Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing 330 U.S. 1 (1947).
Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Ed. of School Dist. No. 71 Champaign Cty 333 U.S. 203 (1948).
Copyright by the Author, Colin Glennon.