The Clerical Challenge to the Schools

How can the Protestant Churches,asks AGNES E. MEYER, “oppose with a good conscience the Catholic campaign to break down the wall between Church and State when they themselves have for years been breaching that wall by other methods?" A graduate and trustee of Barnard College and the mother of five children, Mrs. Meyer has served on several national commissions on Education and on Health. Last year she received the Annual Award of the Education Writers Association.



IT is no more vagary of taste that has brought about in this period of revolution a rediscovery of Thomas Jefferson and a reappraisal of him as the outstanding scholar and humanitarian and the most creative mind of our first Revolution.

What were Jefferson’s greatest achievements? He himself told us when he wrote the epitaph for his tombstone: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.”

The Virginia act ranked high in Jefferson’s mind because he considered that in this act for civil and religious freedom he had already created for the people of Virginia, and he hoped eventually for the nation, the “wall of separation between Church and State" which the First Amendment read into the Constitution. The State should neither support nor oppose any particular form of Church. It should leave the Churches strictly alone and the Churches should leave the State and all its institutions strictly alone. In the course of time this became the official American position and, as Jefferson foresaw and James Bryce confirmed, it saved our nation all the bloodshed, cruelties, and intolerance which have defaced the history of religious strife in Europe.

The separation of Church and State is not merely a principle of our democracy but a body of experience that we have lived for a hundred and fifty years. The written law became so thoroughly accepted as a common place of our American culture that recent historians have taken it for granted. As a result the man in the street has forgotten the immense contribution it has made to all of his freedoms, not only of religion, but of thought, speech, and press. Jefferson evolved this principle because he hated every form of tyranny over the mind, but unless the average person has some awareness of this he can scarcely share the passionate conviction of the late Justice Rutledge’s statement : “We have staked the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation of church and state is best for the state and best for religion.”

Today the Protestant and Catholic Church leaders are giving ample proof that they have both forgotten what a profound debt they owe to the “wall of separation.”It was the Protestant Churches which first breached this wall when, just before the First World War, they introduced the released time program for religious education in the public schools. The Protestant clergy had become alarmed on reading the report of the United States Office of Education that “only a small proportion of the children throughout the country have even brief contact with church influence.” Instead of asking themselves whether this failure may not have resulted from their own inadequacy, they decided that they must invade the schools with methods of education not powerful enough to attract American families to their churches. Nor have they ever explained why teaching that was ineffective in the churches would be more effective in the schools.

The released time program was of two types. In some communities the clergy entered the schools to teach their sectarian creeds; in others the children were dismissed from school attendance to go to a church of the parents’ choice for religious instruction. The former plan, whereby the clergy enter the public schools, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the McCollum decision. Did this make an impression on the clergy? On some, yes. On others, no. “It must be said to the shame of Protestantism,”says the Reverend Charles Clayton Morrison, “that in too many cases and communities the Protestant churches still carry on the released time practice and, in some cases, even more flagrant forms of violation, in defiance of the Supreme Court’s mandate. I contend that all Protestants should have hailed the Supreme Court’s decision with deep satisfaction and immediately withdrawn from every semblance of continuing the released time practice. Protestantism has an incomparably greater stake in the separation of church and state than it could possibly have in the trivial religious education toy called released time.” The scholarly Dr. Morrison is a Protestant voice calling in a wilderness of religious confusion. One of the few resolutions passed unanimously by the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. at its recent meeting in Atlanta stated that the Council would support the New York plan of released time whereby pupils leave the public schools an hour early, when the appeal is argued before the Supreme Court.

Yet simultaneously the Council has issued a strong manifesto opposing the appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican on the ground that such an appointment fuses government with religion and is therefore an infringement of the separation of Church and State. When the Protestants bring up the First Amendment in this question, they themselves admit that they are on dubious ground,

It is irresolute Protestant thinking such as this which endangers the wall of separation far more than the outright declaration of war upon the First Amendment which the Catholic Bishops made in their official statement of 1948, “The Christian in Action.”

Protestant leadership must begin to realize that its position on the First Amendment is painfully ambiguous, whereas the position of the Catholic Church on this vital problem is crystal clear. The Administrative Catholic Bishops boldly declared the American principle of separation of Church and State a “novel” interpretation of the Constitution, “a shibboleth of doctrinaire secularism” which was recently invented by the Supreme Court in the McCollum decision. They attacked that decision as unconstitutional and announced their determination to work “ peacefully, patiently and perseveringly” for its reversal

Since the Catholic Bishops intend to reverse the McCollum decision, they must necessarily bring to bear all the arguments they can muster in favor of the New York released time legislation when it comes before the Supreme Court. This is a logical consequence of their position.

Yet nobody has spoken more frankly against the 1948 pronouncement, of the Catholic Bishops than certain Protestant leaders and publications. They have pointed out what American experience has confirmed — the dependence of democracy on freedom of religious conscience and the impossibility of assuring this without complete separation of Church and State. Thus the Bishops’ statement places the Catholic hierarchy in permanent hostility to American democratic principles. Some Protestant, authorities claim that the Bishops’ statement does more than that. It challenges the very meaning of America, the whole Jeffersonian doctrine of civil and religious freedom, and our very philosophy of life, our belief in human progress, our hopeful concept of man and his ability to govern himself. Thus, unless the Bishops’ pronouncement of 1948 is retracted, their challenge is bound to precipitate a division in this country, of whose intensity the present religious hostilities are merely a foretaste.

But how, I should like to ask the Protestant Churches, can they logically defend the First Amendment if their own position on the separation of Church and State remains as ambiguous, vacillating, and contradictory as it is today?

At present the Protestant Churches are conducting a violent campaign against. Catholic ambitions for Federal aid to their parochial schools, for the extension of bus transportation for parochial school pupils, and other services which the Catholic prelates minimize as “incidental.” “It [the Catholic Church] seeks to crack the Constitutional principle of separation of Church and State,” said the Reverend Charles Clayton Morrison before the Convention of the Disciples of Christ, “at some point where the average citizen will not discern that it is being cracked and where even the courts may find a way of rationalizing their approval.” But that is precisely what the Protestants did when they first introduced religious training on public school time —they cracked the First Amendment at a point where neither the average citizen nor they themselves discerned that it was being cracked. And now they are trying to persuade the Supreme Court Justices to find a way of rationalizing their approval. How can the Protestant Churches oppose with a good conscience the Catholic campaign to break down the wall between Church and State when they themselves have for years been breaching that wall by other methods?


OUR American schools, like those of Europe, were founded by the Churches. But when our schools were finally secularized toward the middle of the last century, under the leadership of Horace Mann, that movement was not anticlerical or antireligious. To be sure, the sectarian conflicts of that period and their destructive influence on the schools played an important part in the movement. But there was nothing negative or hostile about the agreement, to adhere to separation of State and Church in public education. The secularization of our schools was a positive movement to embody in American education the interaction of the real and the ideal, upon which both democracy and active Christianity depend. Whenever a human being strives upward toward self-development, goodness, and concern for others, there the divine will is active.

The educational program, moreover, has never excluded instruction about religion. It banished only instruction in religion when the schools were secularized. If we bear in mind that the whole future of our democracy depends upon moral solidarity, freedom of conscience, and freedom of inquiry, the secularization of our schools becomes an act of sublime courage and of sublime loyalty to the American faith that our institutions should be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Although the Supreme Court in the McCollum decision has declared unconstitutional a form of released time program which permits the clergy to enter the public schools to teach sectarian creeds, the New York plan, which proposes that public school pupils leave school an hour before the general dismissal to receive religious instruction, remains in a realm of doubtful legality.

The crux of the McCollum decision lies in the following extract from Justice Black’s opinion for the Court: —

The foregoing facts, without reference to others that appear in the record, show the use of tax-supported property for religious instruction and the close coöperation between the school authorities anti the religious council in promoting religious education. The operation of the state’s compulsory education system thus assists and is integrated with the program of religious instruction carried on by separate religious sects. Pupils compelled by law to go to school for secular education are released in part from their legal duty upon the condition that they attend the religions classes. This is beyond all question a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith. And it falls squarely under the ban of the First Amendment (made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth).

Three elements are here held illegal by the Court: —

1. Although the use of tax-supported property does not enter into the New York released time program, the use of tax moneys does. The New York City Board of education alone provides a million dollars’ worth of educational opportunity which is not used by the 102,705 released time students in that city and is consequently wasted. But it is not only the small proportion of children who are dismissed that lose an hour of instruction. The education of the majority who remain in school comes to a halt in order that the dismissed children shall not fall behind in their school lessons. Thus the whole class, and in some cases the whole elementary school, together with the teaching staff, is deprived of one hour of educational opportunity per week. The total waste of taxpayers’ money is incalculably large.

2. The close coöperation between school authorities and religious groups in promoting religious education, which t he Supreme Court condemns, also exists in the New York plan. The Ultimate responsibility for the administration of the program rests wholly with the public school teachers and principals. On them also falls the burden of interpreting the policy of the Board of Education and of executing the mandates of the law. Whether the religious instruction is given within the school or without, the operation of the State’s compulsory education system assists and is integrated with a program of religious instruction carried on by separate religious sects.

The third point made by the Supreme Court, that “pupils compelled by law to go to school for secular education are released in part from their legal duty upon condition that they attend the religious classes,” is an exact description of what also happens under the New York program and therefore “falls squarely under the ban of the First Amendment,” as Justice Black put it. This point is reinforced by the Everson decision of the Supreme Court, which states: “The prohibition [of the First Amendment] broadly forbids state support, financial or otherwise, of religion in any sense, form or degree.”

These and other quotations from the McCollum and Everson decisions apply so clearly and forcibly to the released time plan of religious instruction that many stales and localities have already canceled this type of program. In St. Louis, Missouri, when the local board of education decided to disregard the opinion the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and continue classes on released time outside of the school buildings but without the enforcement of attendance by the public schools, the Circuit Court enjoined the practice, slating in part: —

The differences [between the St. Louis case and the McCollum case] are inconsequential. The controlling fact in both cases is that the public schools are used to aid sectarian groups to disseminate their doctrines. Whether these sectarian classes are conducted in school buildings or elsewhere can make no difference, since attendance upon them during compulsory school hours is deemed attendance at school. Failure to exercise supervision over the instruction of religion and to require the keeping of proper attendance records does not make the school program legal; it merely indicates laxity on the part of the school authorities. The fact that any sect may participate in this program is immaterial; the public school cannot be used to aid one religion or to aid all religions.


HAVE, the Protestant Churches ever asked themselves whether their intrusion into the schools is, in it self, a moral act ?

They advance the argument, for example, that there is no compulsion on the children to take advantage of released time religious training, that parents are free to decide whether their children are to participate, and that therefore the program does not infringe upon the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. A scientific survey of the New York City released time program made by the Center for Field Services of New York University reports evidence “that resistance of children released for religious instruction presents a problem.” Frequently the children refuse to go because they prefer to stay in school. Some teachers interpret the word “dismiss” as permissive and let the children do as they please. Others interpret “dismiss” to mean pressure, and force the children to go.

I have, personally, experienced the pressure, the unhappiness, the rancor, created by the program, especially in small communities, not only among children but among their parents. I have known teachers to use their influence to force children into these programs, and others who burned with silent rage because they resented the tensions the program creates but lacked the freedom to condemn it. In fact, the pressure on the teachers and school administrators is just as wicked as ihe pressure on the children. Would a teacher who values her position dare to oppose or even criticize the Churches openly? What irony that a program to teach Christian love should create acute conflicts, confusion, and hatred!

Justice Frankfurter had the psychological insight to realize the cruel situations the program would create when he said in his McCollum brie!: “That a child is offered an alternative may reduce the constraint; it docs not eliminate the operation of influence by the school in matters sacred to the conscience and outside the school’s domain. The law of imitation operates and non-conformity is not an outstanding characteristic of children. The result is obvious pressure upon children to attend.'

Some adherents of the program profess to see an improvement in the children’s morals. Yet it is a commonly known fact throughout the country, and the report on New York City confirms it, that the released time is an invitation to truancy. Reliable statistics show that about 40 per cent of the children who leave their schools never arrive at the religious centers. Often the children play in the school yard and disturb the school session. Others start out but never arrive. Principals realize that this trend will grow because the Churches cannot control attendance and the teachers are forbidden to do it. Some Churches try to prevent truancy by sending escorts to conduct the children from school to church. Most do not take this precaution. The escorts sometimes fail to appear. Often the religious centers call off their program at the last minute, for lack of personnel. If the children have already left school, they can all play hooky. As the children are caught in an equivocal situation, they lie their way out of their difficulties. Since the object of the released time training is the betterment of character and conduct, the Iruancy and dishonesty to which it tempts children negate its objectives.

The children often travel so far to arrive at the religious center that there is but a small part of the hour left for instruction. The belief that children can benefit from a half hour or even forty-five minutes of oral instruction once a week, especially if their parents have no church affiliation, indicates a superficial concept of religion.

The released time program is unjust because it penalizes ihe majority of the children who remain in school. If the public school teachers carry on worth-while activities during this hour, the clergy denounce them for unfair competition. In Chicago, when less than 10 per cent of the pupils were enrolled in the released time program, the principals received orders that “nothing significant shall be taught the children not taking religious instruction.” In one elementary school in Westchester County, ten children out of some five hundred use the released time program. As they come from various classes, the whole school loses an hour of work. The indignant parenls asked the principal whether the regular curriculum could not be restored. The principal was so terrified of the clergy that he refused to take up the question with them. On the slightest challenge of clerical omniscience, a teacher’s whole future may be — and often is — ruined by accusations of atheism. As a result, sabotage of public education and intimidation of schoolteachers, principals, and parents are taking place all over the country. This is tyranny.

It was demonstrated in December, 1950, at the last session of the White House Conference on Children and Youth, that the vast majority of the American people are determined to protect the freedom of their public schools. The 4620 delegates to this Conference were outstanding local leaders in the fields of religion, education, health, welfare; of women’s and service clubs; of the labor unions, fraternal organizations, and other major groups.

The committee on religion had submitted to the Conference a report of four paragraphs, one of which recommended that the students of public educational institutions throughout the nation should be allowed to go during school hours to any near-by religious foundation for religious instruction and receive credit toward graduation for such courses. This plan, if it had been accepted, would have wrecked the curriculum and the discipline, the moral integrity and the independence, of our whole public school system. It indicates to what extremes the released-time program would be carried by some of the clergy if they are not promptly denied all access to the public schools by the courts.

One of the delegates proposed that the whole religious section be struck out and the following resolution substituted : —

Recognizing knowledge and understanding of religious and ethical concepts as essential to the development of spiritual values and that nothing is of greater importance to the moral and spiritual health of our nation than the works of religious education in our homes and families and in our institutions of organized religion, we nevertheless strongly affirm the principle of separation of church and state which has been the keystone of our American democracy and declare ourselves unalterably opposed to the use of the public schools directly or indirectly for religious educational purposes.

After long and heated debate this resolution was carried by a majority of about two to one.

This was an epoch-making event because it was the first time that the released time program for religious instruction was democratically debated and submitted to the test of public opinion in a gathering whose delegates represented, conservatively estimated, three fourths of our total population. The overwhelming popular vote indicated that the majority of our people are willing to fight to maintain the independence of our schools.

I, too, believe that the child is robbed of its full development if it receives no guidance in early years toward recognition of the religious aspects of life. But this teaching, to be effective, must originate in the home and family life with the coöperation of the Churches. The child’s whole character and spontaneous sense of right and wrong are largely determined before it goes to school. Before school age the responsibility for the child’s development lies with the family and the Church. It is the weakness of these two institutions and their failure for several generations to develop the character of the pre-school child that have now created acute moral problems. Having failed in their primary mission to strengthen the family and reach the children during their most, impressionable and formative years, the Churches now seek a short cut, through the released time program, which will cure overnight the moral defects of children who have been neglected throughout infancy.

A very forthright German Catholic Bishop told me last year that he was pessimistic about the future of the family in that country. “And if the family goes, the Church goes,” he added gloomily. This is an accurate appraisal of the predicament in which organized religion finds itself. Therefore, if the Churches are honestly concerned about the future of Christianity they should spend all their efforts upon saving the family instead of wasting them upon a futile and ineffective released time program. Why invade the public schools to do a superficial job, when the Churches need all their energy, money, and spiritual fortitude to do a more salutary job right in their own parishes?

The school needs all of its time to improve the education of our children and to center upon the task of developing the morality and strength of character that are ideals common to men of all religious faiths. This task is made difficult when the Churches force the school to engage in programs that generate divisiveness. The children are in school only five or six hours a day, about two hundred days of the year. That leaves the Churches ample time to teach religion.

Now that freedom is threatened as never before, Protestantism has a special responsibility to live up to its sublime traditions as the guardian of individual rights, human liberty, and democratic solidarity. If the Protestant leaders will review the effects of the released time program, they will find that it destroys everything that Protestantism has always cherished as its highest ideals. For it is oppressive, unjust, and disruptive of moral discipline. It undermines the legitimate and the unique task of the public schools to establish an integrated program of education that will bind our American children as comrades in a common life.

Protestant, publications, notably the Christian Century, have often expressed their fear of “pluralism,”the division of our citizens into separate isolated religious groups. Nothing encourages pluralism more than breaking up public school children into separate released-time groups. Either the wall of separation between the school and the sectarian groups must be kept invulnerable or the walls between the sectarian groups will become impassably high.

Moreover, the Churches will only weaken themselves if they use the school ns a policeman and teach the children to associate religious instruction with the school rather than the church. By leaning on the schools, the Churches are postponing the time when they must face their real task — of developing religious depth and imparting this sense of depth by educational methods in tune with the needs of the day. The Churches should long ago have discarded their outworn authoritarian verbalism for educational methods based on experience such as our schools have developed. The outmoded methods of instruction of the Churches can only lead to contempt for religion, especially when placed in close juxtaposition with the more vital methods of education that prevail in our best schools.

Our public schools have been one of the most important factors in making America what it is. They became fundamental to the progress and the spiritual vitality of our country. Weaken them and we weaken our entire fabric. We jeopardize our whole future and our contributions to the welfare of mankind.