Nobody paid a lot of attention to issues of the ‘Separation of Church and State’ between Reynolds v. the United States in 1789 [upholding federal bigamy laws], and Everson v. The Board of Education, 1947 ruling it was okay for Catholic parents to be reimbursed for sending their kids to Catholic schools on buses, same as for public school kids using buses.
Those of us who attended public schools prior to Engels v. Vitale in 1962 managed to survive prayers coming over the intercom each morning without any permanent damage and the only eyebrows raised were in response to boredom. In one school I attended, popular kids were selected each day to give the prayers and they seemed to compete with one another to add dramatic emphasis, but generally I’d count it all harmless.
Around that time Madalyn Murray O’Hair entered the picture and atheists became militant and vocal. Maybe it was something in the water. The Murray v. Curlett Supreme Court decision in 1963 ending religious study in public schools became a harbinger for a long series of religion versus state legal battles.
Maybe it was the times…. the fact is, a person declaring himself to be an atheist prior to the 1960s would have been asking for all manner of difficulties. My granddad got a visit from the FBI out on his hardscrabble farm around 1953, because one of his neighbors reported he was an ‘atheistic Communist’. In those times that was serious invective indeed.
But though I’ve spent almost all my adult life not subscribing to any organized religion, which in some circles damns me as an atheist, I’ve often thought the church/state religious battles that emerged to the US Supreme Court were mostly petty embarrassments. If those were the worst infringements accusers could come up with insofar as the separation of church and state, it would have been better left alone than hold them up as evidence atheists were a lot of nit-picking whiners about nothing.
But that’s roughly what we’re left with. Lawsuits filed, court time wasted about nativity scenes on courthouse lawns and plaques containing the Ten Commandments.
Ironically, now we see the Christian fundamentalists trying to establish a foothold as a state religion to protect the US from Islamics and scary Sharia Law. While splinter groups of Mormons drift back into polygamy and assortments of Asian religious establishments creep into suburbia.
Keeping in mind that no legal battle arrives at the door of SCOTUS until it’s been through lower courts and appeal courts. So the list below really doesn’t convey just how much legal time and money has found its way into the pockets of lawyers as a consequence of the determination of people who don’t want religion anywhere in their lives, and those who want their own religion to be implied as valid by display at public expense:
U.S. Supreme Court Decisions
(arranged by date)
Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1879)
Court finds that the federal antibigamy statute does not violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
Court finds that a New Jersey law which included students of Catholic schools in reimbursements to parents who sent their children to school on buses operated by the public transportation system does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
McCollum v. Board of Education Dist. 71, 333 U.S. 203 (1948)
Court finds religious instruction in public schools a violation of the establishment clause and therefore unconstitutional.
Burstyn v. Wilson, 72 S. Ct. 777 (1952)
Government may not censor a motion picture because it is offensive to religious beliefs.
Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)
Court holds that the state of Maryland cannot require applicants for public office to swear that they believed in the existence of God. The court unanimously rules that a religious test violates the Establishment Clause.
Engel v. Vitale, 82 S. Ct. 1261 (1962)
Any kind of prayer, composed by public school districts, even nondenominational prayer, is unconstitutional government sponsorship of religion.
Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963)
Court finds Bible reading over school intercom unconstitutional and Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) – Court finds forcing a child to participate in Bible reading and prayer unconstitutional.
Epperson v. Arkansas, 89 S. Ct. 266 (1968)
State statue banning teaching of evolution is unconstitutional. A state cannot alter any element in a course of study in order to promote a religious point of view. A state’s attempt to hide behind a nonreligious motivation will not be given credence unless that state can show a secular reason as the foundation for its actions.
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 91 S. Ct. 2105 (1971)
Established the three part test for determining if an action of government violates First Amendment’s separation of church and state:
1) the government action must have a secular purpose;
2) its primary purpose must not be to inhibit or to advance religion;
3) there must be no excessive entanglement between government and religion.
Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980)
Court finds posting of the Ten Commandments in schools unconstitutional.
Wallace v. Jaffree, 105 S. Ct. 2479 (1985)
State’s moment of silence at public school statute is unconstitutional where legislative record reveals that motivation for statute was the encouragement of prayer. Court majority silent on whether “pure” moment of silence scheme, with no bias in favor of prayer or any other mental process, would be constitutional.
Edwards v. Aquillard, 107 S. Ct. 2573 (1987)
Unconstitutional for state to require teaching of “creation science” in all instances in which evolution is taught. Statute had a clear religious motivation.
Allegheny County v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989)
Court finds that a nativity scene displayed inside a government building violates the Establishment Clause.
Lee v. Weisman, 112 S. Ct. 2649 (1992)
Unconstitutional for a school district to provide any clergy to perform nondenominational prayer at elementary or secondary school graduation. It involves government sponsorship of worship. Court majority was particularly concerned about psychological coercion to which children, as opposed to adults, would be subjected, by having prayers that may violate their beliefs recited at their graduation ceremonies.
Church of Lukumi Babalu Ave., Inc. v. Hialeah, 113 S. Ct. 2217 (1993)
City’s ban on killing animals for religious sacrifices, while allowing sport killing and hunting, was unconstitutional discrimination against the Santeria religion.
If you believe this isn’t over yet, you are probably correct. Because even though religious affiliation in the US is evidently dropping somewhat rapidly, the strength of the fundamentalist right, the Latter Day Saints, the Jews, and the Islamics is gaining, rather than losing momentum.
There’s cause to suspect we’ll see at least another half century before any of the parties involved are powerless. It’s a crapshoot who will be the last man standing.
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