Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Historian Discusses Early School Bible Reading Case

On April 1, the Ohio Supreme Court hosted an hour-long Forum on "The Cincinnati Bible War Case of 1873," with a presentation by Notre Dame historian Linda Przybyszewski. A video of the full presentation is online. The Court's press release on the Forum summarizes the history:
Amid the increasing diversity and pluralism of the post-Civil War era, the Cincinnati public schools were faced with a growing Catholic population unhappy that their children were instructed with the protestant version of the Bible. The school board’s solution to remove all bibles from the classroom erupted into a raging national controversy over the relationship between religion and government. In 1873, the Ohio Supreme Court put an end to the Cincinnati Bible War, upholding the board’s decision to end Bible reading in its schools.
The Ohio Supreme Court decision at the center of this discussion is Board of Education v. Minor, 23 Ohio St. 211 (OH Sup. Ct., 1873) [LEXIS link to full opinion]. The opinion is full of surprisingly 21st-century sounding defenses of church-state separation and protection of minority religions. The following is an example, but a full reading of the opinion is well worth the time:
Counsel say that to withdraw all religious instruction from the schools would be to put them under the control of "infidel sects." This is by no means so. To teach the doctrines of infidelity, and thereby teach that Christianity is false, is one thing; and to give no instructions on the subject is quite another thing. The only fair and impartial method, where serious objection is made, is to let each sect give its own instructions, elsewhere than in the state schools, where of necessity all are to meet; and to put disputed doctrines of religion among other subjects of instruction, for there are many others, which can more conveniently, satisfactorily, and safely be taught elsewhere.


Anonymous said...

Excellent find! That's about one of the clearest statements of the neutrality concept I've seen come out of the courts.

Removing religious instruction - whether it is recitation of prayers during school time, studying the Bible as religious text, listening to passages of scripture, posting the ten commandments, or other more modernly contentious issues like having the phrase 'under God' in the pledge of allegiance to our country - is not an establishment of atheism.

To establish (strong) atheism would be to insert active statements that there are no deities; it is not equivalent to simply failing to examine the topic entirely.

When you free the public sphere of governmentally sponsored establishment violations, you place religion firmly within the sphere of the private sector where everyone can enjoy the fruits of their faith or lack thereof, independent from the oppressive hand of government coercion and the insidious pressure it exerts even in the most trivial-seeming of violations.

Private theological concerns are just that - private. Neutrality is the best way to ensure that our private meaningful experiences are not sullied by the threat of state-run orthodoxy.


tim said...

Nice video, and I just wanted to hear someone pronounce Prof. Przybyszewski's name out loud. If you can survive the introductions, it's a very interesting presentation. Evangelicals should take note, here's a religously sympathetic historian arguing that religion has no place in public schools.

Bob Ritter said...

Howard, thanks Howard for the depths of your reporting. Shows why history is important. And our frequent failure to learn from the past.

This case would give Scalia a heart attack and gives church-state attorneys, such as myself proof, that separation of church and state didn't start in the 1940's.