Thursday, March 8, 2018

70 years ago: U.S. Supreme Court rules against religious instruction in public schools

On March 8, 1948, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 8-1 in McCollum v. Board of Education that public school involvement in religious instruction was unconstitutional. The case was brought by Vashti McCollum, an atheist, against the school board of Champaign, Illinois. Champaign, like some other cities, had a practice in its schools called "release time," in which class time was set aside for religious instruction--Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. Mrs. McCollum complained that her son James was being ostracized for not attending.

The Supreme Court's ruling in McCollum v. Board of Education was one of a series of such decisions that began in the 1940s and culminated with the rulings in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) against compulsory prayer and Bible reading, respectively, in American public schools. The Supreme Court hadn't moved in that direction before, so it's curious that from the 1940s through the '60s it acted in a consistently anti-Christian direction. A Roman Catholic writer, Paul A. Fisher, perceived a definite anti-Catholic bias in the Supreme Court's actions, and attempted to find why this was. His research, which included examination of judges' diaries and papers, comprised much of the content in his book Behind the Lodge Door (1988, 1989, 1994).

Mr. Fisher discovered that Supreme Court became composed disproportionately of Unitarians and Universalists, with considerable crossover between that and membership in Scottish Rite Freemasonry. From 1941-1971, at least five of the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court were Freemasons, with the number rising to 7 from 1946-1949; 8 from 1949-1956; 7 from 1956-1957; and 6 from 1957-1969. Mr. Fisher was particularly outraged by the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Everson v. Board of Education (February 10, 1947), where the Court ruled that it was a violation of the separation of church and state to have public financing of transportation of children to private religious schools.

In the case of McCollum v. Board of Education, Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion, joined by Fred Vinson, Frank Murphy, William O. Douglas, Wiley Rutledge, and Harold Burton. Felix Frankfurter wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Robert Jackson, and Justices Rutledge and Burton. Justice Jackson also wrote his own concurring opinion. Stanley Reed wrote a dissenting opinion. Justices Black, Vinson, Douglas, Rutledge, Burton, Jackson, and Reed were Freemasons. Justices Frankfurter and Murphy were not Masons, but Mr. Fisher argues that their thinking parallelled that of Freemasonry, and that the Court's rulings reflected a Masonic or unitarian/universalist point of view.

It's worth noting the groups that supported Mrs. McCollum's petition: American Unitarian Association; Synagogue Council of America; General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; and Baptist Joint Committee of Religious Liberty. The Baptist Joint Committee of Religious Liberty might strike the reader as an odd name to be part of this, but this is an organization of liberal Baptist denominations--the kind that produced people such as Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. The presence of the Synagogue Council of America is also worth noting; the Synagogue Council of America was also involved in the Engel v. Vitale case in 1962. It might come as a shock to those who talk about America's "Judeo-Christian" values to see the extent to which Jewish organizations have been at the forefront in trying to eradicate the public influence of Christianity in the United States.

The reader may conclude--especially in light of recent events--whether the Supreme Court's rulings against religious instruction in public schools has been good for the schools or for American society.

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