, , ,

By David Mislin

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that addressed one of the most hotly debated subjects in American life: the relationship between government and religious institutions, or, as more commonly expressed, the separation of church and state.

The 7-2 decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer – authored by Chief Justice Roberts with Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissenting – found in favor of a Missouri church in its dispute with the state government. Missouri has a program offering subsidies for refurbishing playgrounds, and Trinity Lutheran’s preschool had applied. Because the state constitution forbids public funds being used “in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion,” officials rejected the church’s application.

The church’s argument, which swayed the majority of justices, was that because state funds were available to secular charities, Missouri’s rejection constituted discrimination against Trinity on religious grounds.

Some legal observers anticipated that the Court’s decision would reopen other issues of church-state separation. In particular, advocates seeking the expansion of school voucher programs to include religious institutions expressed optimism that the Court would soon rule in their favor.

It’s not surprising that the latest episode in the national debate over religion and government has raised issues relating to education. For the better part of two centuries, schools – both public and religious – have been the major source of debate about the boundary between church and state.

During the late nineteenth century, the growing population of U.S. Catholics redoubled their efforts to build a nationwide network of parochial schools. Believing (often correctly) that the lessons taught in public schools were hostile to their faith, Catholics thought that the only solution was the creation of their own educational institutions. At the same time, though, these Catholics asserted their perceived rights as taxpayers. They insisted that parochial schools should receive public funds. Non-Catholics responded with outrage to this proposal, and sought to present public schools as secular. Political and educational leaders presented the elements of religious expression that remained, such as Bible reading and prayer, as non-specific to any particular faith tradition. [1]

Even these small religious elements did not last beyond the mid-twentieth century. In Engel v. Vitale in 1962, the Supreme Court prohibited official, structured prayer in the nation’s public schools. In 1963, the Court ruled in Abington School District v. Schemmp that schools could not require students to read the Bible for religious purposes. Both of these court cases helped to galvanize religious conservatives, who felt that church-state separation had come to mean the removal of religion from education, and more broadly from public life in the U.S. [2]

With such a history, it’s easy to view education as nothing but a contentious battlefield in church-state relations. But in my own research, I’ve also found evidence of Americans working hard to compromise with innovative solutions to questions of public funds for religious educational institutions.

In the 1870s, the city of Poughkeepsie, New York, piloted one such solution. When Catholic schools there closed, elected officials agreed to fund two public schools for Catholic students with Catholic teachers. The only condition was that no religious instruction could take place during normal school hours, but teachers could instruct students in matters of the faith after the regular day had ended. Catholic parents enjoyed the assurance that their children would receive religious instruction and, more important, would not be ridiculed for their faith by unsympathetic teachers.

Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, was one of the foremost American Catholic leaders in the late nineteenth century. A supporter of the Poughkeepsie Plan, he encouraged several towns in Minnesota to adopt it.

The Poughkeepsie Plan was enormously successful. One Protestant minister in the city credited the plan with “the harmonizing of the conflicting elements of our population,” while another observer called for it to be “universally adopted” throughout the U.S. While that ambitious goal never came to fruition, several other towns and cities did use it as the model for similar programs.

Of course, this solution only worked under very particular circumstances. It was not readily adaptable to communities where religious diversity went beyond Protestantism and Catholicism. This limit explains why Poughkeepsie’s model did not survive into the mid-twentieth century and was not widely adopted throughout the U.S.

Nevertheless, endeavors like the one attempted in Poughkeepsie are a reminder that church-state issues have not always resulted in irreconcilable disagreements. In the past, Americans have successfully negotiated thoughtful, nuanced solutions to questions of religion and government policy.

Time will tell whether the Supreme Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer represents such a nuanced compromise, or if it merely flings open the gates to more heated arguments.

For more on the Poughkeepsie Plan, see Benjamin Justice, The War that Wasn’t: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865-1900 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).

[1] John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 112-118.

[2] Neil J. Young, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016; see all of chapter three for a discussion of these cases and their effects.