Scene I: A devoutly Christian couple is sorting bills on the kitchen table, the husband picks up the invoice for their two children’s private school tuition. He lets it drop into the pile, remarking, “We’d be able to afford a vacation this year if they hadn’t taken God out of the public schools.”
Scene II: Opening the final session of the U.S. Supreme Court, June 21, 1962, Solicitor General Archibald Cox addresses Chief Justice Warren, noting that this is Justice Hugo Black’s 25th term on the court, to which the chief responds warmly. The light on the dais illuminates the Alabamian’s slim face, smiling broadly.
After the brief ceremony, the Clay County native, raised in a rural Baptist tradition and who had taught adult Bible classes in Birmingham and Washington, read his decision for a 6-1 majority court in Engle v. Vitale, which bans government from imposing its version of prayer on public schools.
Specifically, the opinion ruled that a prayer devised by the New York Board of Regents (a prayer so bland as to be meaningless) was the only “official” prayer to be recited by students.
As soon as newspapers hit the street with headlines such as “Court Bans Prayer In School,” a storm broke and its echoes are still heard as the nation prepares for another school year.
Even at this late date, it would be helpful to know what the former Sunday school teacher’s opinion did and did not do. It simply prohibited government from writing and imposing its own prayers on people.
The clause in the First Amendment that prevents government from “establishing” religion, he wrote, means “that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people as part of a religious program carried on by government.”
The opinion then moved quickly to cite how governments abroad and at home have straitjacketed freedom of religion. The Book of Common Prayer was approved by Acts of Parliament in the 15th and 16th centuries, establishing the tax-supported Church of England.
Other faiths, Judge Black wrote, “decided to leave England and its established church and seek freedom in America from England’s governmentally ordained and supported religion.”
Once here, the same people who fled the established Church of England, in obedience to man’s innate desire to enforce conformity, set about erecting its own governmental religions, a collection of theocracies.
Justice Black’s historical research, as late as the time of the Revolution, counted established churches in at least eight of the 13 original colonies and established religions in four of the other five.
After the Revolution, however, opposition grew to the practice of establishing religion by law. Minority religious groups such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Quakers and Baptists grew in such numbers that it made the established Episcopal Church a minority itself.
The political climate was right, Black reasoned, in 1785-86 for the leadership of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to enact the Virginia Bill for Religious Liberties under which all faiths were on equal footing.
As if Judge Black was writing today about the pit of snakes that is the Middle East, he wrote:
“The purposes underlying the Establishment Clause go much further … Its first and foremost immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.”
The Sunnis and Shiites who are bombing each other in Iraq and the scrum-to-death horror of Syria’s Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, al-Qaida, etc., owe their bitter conflict to a desperate desire to form a union of government with their unique sect of Islam.
Re-reading Judge Black’s opinion in light of today’s realities is a lesson in the folly of man and his desire to stand at the top of the hill and shout to those below, “Follow me, I and I alone know the way…”
It is presumptuously beyond the power of a Supreme Court or a legislative demand for a “prayer in school amendment” to remove God from school or to put him there, if he is not in the heart of people who study there.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.