By Jack Wilkie
With the effort to bring evolution into the schools well underway through the efforts of John Dewey and his colleagues, the next logical step was legal acceptance of such teachings. While the push for universal compulsory education had made great strides, the introduction of evolution and removal of God would take another effort of a different kind. Unlike the compulsory attendance fight, these battles would not be fought and won among state legislatures, but in courts.
One early, well-known example is the “Scopes Monkey Trial” (formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes). In 1925 the state of Tennessee passed a law called the Butler Act to ensure that children would not be taught macroevolution, as it was contradictory to Biblical truth. Naturally, this would have to be tested in a court of law. A relatively new organization, the ACLU (founded just five years earlier) wanted to challenge the Butler Act, and so they offered to provide legal defense for any teacher who broke the law. John Thomas Scopes agreed to do so and was tried for his offense. While he eventually lost and the Butler Act was upheld, the trial made many familiar with both Scopes and the ACLU and established the precedent that evolution would be debated in the courts for years to come. (The Butler Act was eventually repealed in 1967, followed shortly by court decisions of a similar nature in Arkansas and Mississippi, who had also passed anti-evolution laws in the 1920s.)
Going beyond that, the Scopes trial was the first in a series of cases that took place on the battlefield between humanism and Biblical teaching in the field of education. In examining a number of these decisions we can see how the beliefs of Dewey and the rest of the humanists were implemented through the courts.
Everson v. Board of Education (1947) – Although the Scopes trial was important in that it was the announcement of sorts of the coming legal battles over religion, the Everson decision was far more influential. Why? Because it established the idea of separation of church and state in the realm of education. If you wonder why the denominational world loses every challenge you ever see in the news (concerning school prayers, students wearing religious shirts, Bible-oriented songs at school events, etc.), you can look back to this decision.
The case itself seemed harmless enough on the surface. In short, the state of New Jersey was providing reimbursement to parents of both publicly and privately educated students for transportation to and from school. The argument was that by giving money to the parents of the (religious) private school students, the state was supporting that religious organization with taxpayer money. While the United States Supreme Court eventually ruled against the case due to there being no direct tie between the taxpayer money and the schools, two precedents were set in both the majority and dissenting opinions. First, the wall of separation between church and state was now applied to schools. Second, the ruling meant that the First Amendment’s restrictions on the establishment of religion applied not only to the federal government but also to the states beginning with this particular decision.
As stated above, the long-term effect on every other decision involving education and religion cannot be understated. Bruce N. Shortt and John Taylor Gatto both addressed the gravity of Everson v. Board of Education. “As a practical matter, Everson made the federal courts the arbiter of what the states could and could not do in the area of religion… In effect, Everson made the thorough secularization of government schools a mission of the federal courts. It also placed a powerful weapon in the hands of the enemies of Christianity.”i Gatto agreed, saying, “Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1. (1947) prepared the dismissal of religion from American public schools… A new and higher power had spoken, a power with the ability to dispense with religion in government facilities.”ii As you can see, this decision was the beginning of a snowball effect of sorts for the secular humanist worldview in the United States education system. The groundwork for their worldview had been set in place for years. Consider that most of Dewey’s major works on education were published around 1900. By the time 1947 came around, secular humanism was well on its way to dominance in education. As we can observe just by looking at the world around us today, the battle has never been the same since the Everson decision. At the time, evolution was still a fringe teaching in schools. Churches and schools could be closely associated. The Bible was welcome in schools. It’s no longer possible to even dream of a nation like that in this day and age, all because of one Supreme Court case and the dominos that have been falling in courts ever since. In our final article on the history of education next month we’ll take a look at six more cases that have changed the presence of religion and the Bible and schools.