The Supreme Court’s Protestant Influence

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


The Supreme Court’s Protestant Influence
By Sara Garrett

In America we value our freedom of religion and trust our government to protect that freedom. Whenever our freedom is in question we leave it to the Supreme Court to interpret our constitution and tell us exactly what our freedoms are. However when looking back through some of our court cases that the Supreme Court has ruled on we can see ways that in some ways they have been influenced by Protestant values that are prominent in our society.

During different time periods in our country the way the Supreme Court has made decisions that accommodate Protestant values. Then on the other hand there have been times where the Supreme Court has made decision that reject these values taking a separatists approach when it comes to church-state relations.

Late National Period

In the late national period we see that the supreme courts ruling shows signs of our countries Protestant values. Through the Supreme Court’s decision on a few cases it shows that they have tried to accommodate some typical Protestant values. An obvious example of this is the case of Reynolds v. United States (1878). In Reynolds v. United States the court rules that the laws banning polygamy are constitutional and this ruling still stands today. Even though by popular opinion polygamy may be viewed as a very negative thing, however it clearly states in the bible that polygamy is a sin. So we can see that the Supreme Courts decision is rooted in Protestant values of marriage and that polygamy wrong and as Americans is not something that we want to condone.

Another example of the Supreme Court making a decision that favor protestant values is the cases of Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925). In this case Oregon had passed a law that tried to eliminate parochial schools by making it mandatory for children to attended public school or state recognized private schools. The court decided that the law was unconstitutional and stated that parents have the right of liberty therefore they can choose which school to send their children too.

Pierce v. Society of Sister shows that when the state tried to prevent children from going to Protestant schools but the court did not allow that that. The Society of Sisters was concerned with parents’ rights to send their children to parochial schools and through the Supreme Courts decision that right was protected.

These cases are just two examples of ways we see the Supreme Court accommodating to Protestant values. They are supporting Protest values in education by protecting parents right of making sure their children can have protestant educations. They also do not allow polygamy, which is something that is clearly against Protestant values.

1930s-1955

In this time period there is a shift in the court. While the Supreme Court is still accommodating to Protestant values they are also more accommodating to other non-protestant religions. We see this in a few cases like Cantwell v. Connecticut and Everson v. Board of Education.

In the case of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) we see the court has become more accommodating to non-protestant religions. This case in particular deals with Jehovah witnesses. Cantwell was going door to door with pamphlets about his religion and was charged with soliciting and breach of peace. When brought before the Supreme Court the court found that Cantwell’s actions were protected by the first and fourteenth amendment. The courts decision reflects them being more accommodating to non-protestant religions

During this time period we also have the landmark case of Everson v. Board of Education (1947). The reason this case is considered to be a landmark case is because it is the first time the Supreme Court made the Establishment Clause binding to states.

In Everson v. Board of Education New Jersey students attending non-public (mostly catholic schools) are given reimbursement for students taking public transportation to school. The case was brought to the court by a New Jersey taxpayer; the courts decision was that the reimbursement was constitutional. The opinion of the court stated, “Since we hold that the legislature may appropriate general state funds or authorize the use of local funds for the transportation of pupils to any school, we conclude that such authorization of the use of local funds is likewise authorized”

In both of these cases we can see that the Supreme Court is trying to be accommodating to all religions. They are trying not to place limits on Protestant values in society as well as some values of other non-protestant religions.

1955 and beyond

In this last time period there is a dramatic shift in how the Supreme Court now handles cases dealing with the free exercise and establishment of religion. Up until now they had been very accommodating to Protestant values but starting in the late 1950s we see that their decisions have changed. The Supreme Court starts to take a very separatists approach. They do not want to mix religion and government and this means not as much support of Protestant values in their decisions. We can see that through their decisions on some of their most well known cases.

The first case that reflects the Supreme Court separating Protestant values in their rulings is Engel v. Vitale (1962). Engel v. Vitale is another landmark case because it bans prayer in public schools. In this case we see the court taking a separatist approach to their decision. In the past they had tried to be more accommodating to religions, there for still being able to have protestant values be apart of that accommodation. However, with Engel v. Vitale even though the prayers in school were voluntary prayer and government written the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to have these prayers in public school.

This is a very significant case because we see that through this decision school are no longer allowed to have prayer in them. While many Protestants wanted to have prayer in schools the court ruled against it showing that there is not an as significant Protestant role in the court.

Lemon v Kurtzman (1971) is another very significant case. The reason this case is so important is because in the decision the court made a test, The Lemon Test, which explains the requirements for legislation regarding religion. This is a three-fold test, which are:

  1. “The government’s decisions must not result in an “excessive government engagement” with religious affairs’. (Also known as the Entanglement Prong)
  2. The government’s legislative action must minimally enforce or inhibit religious practice (also known as the Effect Prong)
  3. The government’s implicit action is required to maintain a secular legislative agenda (also known as the Purpose Prong)”

Now when any case regarding religion is brought before the court they use this test to see if the governments action is constitutional or not. If one of the 3 folds is violated then the act is rule unconstitutional.

This is only another way the Court has less of a Protestant influence. The court has a set way to handle cases regarding religion so that there will be no disparities between religions and the governments support of it. There is no way now the court can show favoritism over certain religions once they start making test like these.

Roe v. Wade (1973) is one of the most famous cases to go before the Supreme Court. This case deals with the issue of abortion. This case does not deal with religion however it does deal with values that play a significant role in Protestant religion. In the courts decision they claimed that abortion is a fundamental right, meaning this is a right that belongs to all human beings. This is something that not only upset Protestants but other religious groups as well. The Court really does not take Protestant values into consideration at all. This is a clear example of how separate they have made religion and politics because the Protestant values to do influence this case at all.

It is clear that the Supreme Court has changed the way they rule on establishment and free exercise of religion cases. They are not being as accommodating and have very much shown that they want strongly enforces the separation of church and state.

Conclusion

America is a country that was founded for freedom and one of those freedoms is the freedom of religion. America is also a country founded by Protestants. Through out history we have seen the Supreme Court try to balance the influence of Protestant Values and the freedom of religion. They have been accommodating for a long time and now we see that there have been great efforts and decisions made to make sure that religion and government are separated and that there is religious freedom for all religions in America and not just Protestant religions.

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