Judicial 'Hostility to All Things Religious in Public Life' or Healthy Separation of Religion and Public Education?

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2008

Publication Source

Religion & Education


“We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus... There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” —Thomas Jefferson2

It seems that whenever reading about Thomas Jefferson and religion, a deist who believed in a higher power, or Supreme Being, but not a personal relationship with God, per se, he is depicted as the consummate separationist. To this end, rather than cite to the preceding passage from Jefferson’s letter to John Adams, which acknowledged the value of the teachings of Christ, proponents rely on his metaphor of the wall of separation between Church and State:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God ... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,— thus building a wall of separation between church and state.’”3

Yet, as reflected in the opening passage, Jefferson was neither hostile to nor sought to exclude the teachings of Jesus, and by extension, religion entirely from the marketplace of ideas, even though he called for separation between Church and State. Moreover, even in conceding that there are differences in subject matter between Jefferson’s two remarks, with the first speaking of Jesus as a great teacher and that latter fearing state establishment of religion, this article maintains that these distinctions are of degree, not kind since both ultimately impact on the place, or lack thereof, of religion in public life.

Put another way, even though Jefferson was more a deist than a Christian, there is no reason to believe that he was as hostile to religion as he has been portrayed by those who join in his call for a "wall of separation" between Church and State. Consequently, the Supreme Court's modern jurisprudence, which sets the tone for other courts, and much of the educational community, has established an approach that not only calls for a "wall of separation" between Church and State, but which also "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life,"4 particularly those that are Christian in nature. An argument can be made that the Supreme Court has adopted a position that is largely hostile to religion, Christianity in particular, having seemingly aligned itself with those who oppose religion5 in the on-going culture war6 that has swept the United States in excluding prayer and most religious activity from public schools.

As such, this brief essay reflects on how the judiciary, and school officials, have misapplied and misunderstood the so-called Lemon test,7 the Court’s quintessential standard for dealing with religious matters in public education, discussed below, in essentially adopting an attitude that is hostile to religion in the public marketplace of ideas. At the outset, it is important to note that this essay does not advocate the inclusion of sectarian prayer and religious activities in public schools. Rather, the essay suggests that the courts, and educators, should adopt a more even-handed approach to religion, especially Christianity, when evaluating the constitutionality of such activities under Establishment Clause analysis, recognizing that allowing individuals the freedom to express their faiths is not the same as imposing a state religion.

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Taylor & Francis





Place of Publication

Philadelphia, PA

Peer Reviewed


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