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Court Cases in Education Timeline

Updated: Apr 6, 2018

Consider these cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States as cited by The Oyez Project:

• 1948 – McCollum vs Board of Education District 71

In 1940, members of the Jewish, Roman Catholic and some Protestant faiths formed a voluntary association called the Champaign (Illinois) Council on Religious Education. Cooperating with the Champaign Board of Education, the Council offered voluntary classes in religious instruction to public school pupils which were conducted in the regular classrooms of the school building. Students who chose not to attend the classes were required to go to some other place in the building to pursue secular studies. The Court held that the use of tax-supported property for religious instruction and the cooperation between the school authorities and the religious council violated the Establishment clause. Because pupils were required to attend school and were released in part from this legal duty if they attended the religious classes, the Court found that the Champaign system was “beyond question a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups and to spread the faith.” (The Oyez Project, McCollum v. Board of Education Dist. 71, 333 U.S. 203 (1948) available at: (

• 1962 – Engel vs Vitale

The Board of Regents for the State of New York authorized a short, voluntary prayer for recitation at the start of each school day as an attempt to defuse the politically potent issue by taking it out of the hands of local communities. The invocations read as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country.” The Court ruled that the reading of a nondenominational prayer at the start of the school day violated the “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment and that the prayer’s nondenominational character nor its voluntary character saved it from unconstitutionality. In short, by providing the prayer, New York officially approved religion, the Court ruled. This was the first in a series of cases in which the Court used the establishment clause to eliminate religious activities of all sorts, which had traditionally been a part of public ceremonies. (The Oyez Project, Engel v. Vitale , 370 U.S. 421 (1962)

• 1963 – Abington School District vs Schempp

The Abington case concerned Bible-reading in Pennsylvania public schools. At the beginning of the school day, students who attended public schools in the state of Pennsylvania were required to read at least 10 verses from the Bible. After completing these readings, school authorities required all Abington Township students to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Students could be excluded from these exercises by a written note from their parents to the school. In a related case — Murray v. Curlett — a Baltimore statute required Bible-reading or the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at open exercises in public schools. Murray and his mother, professed atheists — challenged the prayer requirement. The Court found that Pennsylvania law and Abington’s policy, requiring public school students to participate in classroom religious exercises, violated the religious freedom of students as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The required activities, according to the Court, encroached on both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment since the readings and recitations were essentially religious ceremonies and were “intended by the State to be so.” Furthermore, according to the Court, the ability of a parent to excuse a child from these ceremonies by a written note was irrelevant since it did not prevent the school’s actions from violating the Establishment Clause. (The Oyez Project, Abington School District v. Schempp , 374 U.S. 203 (1963) available at: (

• 1971 – Lemon vs Kurtzman

This case was heard concurrently with two others, Earley v. DiCenso (1971) and Robinson v. DiCenso (1971), cases involving controversies over laws in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. In Pennsylvania, a statute provided financial support for teacher salaries, textbooks and instructional materials for secular subjects to non-public schools. The Rhode Island statute provided direct supplemental salary payments to teachers in non-public elementary schools. Each statute made aid available to “church-related educational institutions.” The court ruled the Rhode Island and Pennsylvania statutes violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by making state financial aid available to “church- related educational institutions.” A three-part test for laws dealing with religious establishment was included in the ruling. To be constitutional, the test stated, a statute must have “a secular legislative purpose,” it must have principal effects which neither advance nor inhibit religion, and it must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” The Court found that the subsidization of parochial schools furthered a process of religious inculcation, and that the “continuing state surveillance” necessary to enforce the specific provisions of the laws would inevitably entangle the state in religious affairs. The Court also noted the presence of an unhealthy “divisive political potential” concerning legislation which appropriates support to religious schools. (The Oyez Project, Lemon v. Kurtzman , 403 U.S. 602 (1971) available at: (

• 1992 – Lee vs Weisman

In keeping with the practice of several other public middle and high school principals in Providence, R.I., Robert E. Lee, a middle school principal, invited a rabbi to speak at his school’s graduation ceremony. Daniel Weisman’s daughter, Deborah, was among the graduates. Hoping to stop the rabbi from speaking at his daughter’s graduation, Weisman sought a temporary restaining order in District Court – but was denied. After the ceremony, where prayers were recited, Weisman filed for a permanent injunction barring Lee and other Providence public school officials from inviting clergy to deliver invocations and benedictions at their schools’ ceremonies. When the Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court ruling against the schools, Lee appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled the inclusion of clergy who offer prayers at official public school ceremonies violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In the 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that government involvement in the case creates “a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school,” and that the conduct conflicted with settled rules proscribing prayer for students. The Court found that the school’s rule created subtle and indirect coercion (students must stand respectfully and silently), forcing students to act in ways which established a state religion. (The Oyez Project, Lee v. Weisman , 505 U.S. 577 (1992) available at: ( available at: (

• 2000 Santa Fe Independent School District vs Doe

Prior to 1995, a student elected as Santa Fe High School’s student council chaplain delivered a prayer, described as overtly Christian, over the public address system before each home varsity football game. One Mormon and one Catholic family filed suit challenging this practice and others under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The District Court enjoined the public Santa Fe Independent School District (the District) from implementing its policy as it stood. While the suit was pending, the District adopted a new policy, which permitted, but did not require, student-initiated and student- led prayer at all the home games and which authorized two student elections, the first to determine whether “invocations” should be delivered at games, and the second to select the spokesperson to deliver them. After the students authorized such prayers and selected a spokesperson, the District Court entered an order modifying the policy to permit only nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayer. The Court of Appeals held that, even as modified by the District Court, the football prayer policy was invalid. The District claimed its policy did not violate the Establishment Clause because the football game messages were private student speech, not public speech. In the 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the District’s policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violated the Establishment Clause. The Court concluded that the football game prayers were public speech authorized by a government policy and taking place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events and that the District’s policy involved both perceived and actual government endorsement of the delivery of prayer at important school events. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist noted in his dissent of the ruling the “disturbing” tone of the Court’s opinion that “bristle[d] with hostility to all things religious in public life.”

Volume 3 Issue 2 - The Renewanation Review


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