Public Schools and Religious Education


By CHARLES H. TUTTLE, former United States District Attorney and a Member of theGreater New York Interfaith Committee

Delivered over Radio Station, January 21, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 279-280

LAST year the Legislature of New York State amended the State Education Law by adding the following words: "Absence for religious observance and education shall be permitted under rules that the Commissioner (of Education) shall establish."

Those who believe that parents have some right to voice in the interpretation of education as it affects their children in the public schools do not feel that this statute needs any defense.

Furthermore, the law is now on the statute books; and it therefore becomes the duty of all good Americans to give cheerful obedience not only to its letter but also to its spirit.

In answer to the adverse views which have been expressed in certain quarters, I shall do no more than to read the memorandum of the distinguished Governor of this State when by his signature he created the present law. He said: "Under this bill the State Commissioner of Education shall establish rules under which children may, on certain occasions, be permitted to leave school for the purpose of attending their religious observances and receiving religious education.

"For sometime it has been the practice in many localities in this state to excuse children from school a certain period each week for religious instruction. The Board of Regents has recognized the right of local school boards to do this. The Court of Appeals unanimously held that the practice was within the letter and spirit of our Constitution and law. In so holding the Court of Appeals pointed out 'Neither the Constitution nor the law discriminates against religions. Denominational religion is merely put in its proper place outside of public aid or support.

"However, at the present time there is no uniformity of practice throughout the State. Nor is any officer or agency of the state authorized or charged with the responsibility of adopting rules under which absences for religious observances or instruction may be permitted. This bill will assure some uniformity and permanency by placing the authority and responsibility upon the State Commissioner of Education to adopt such rules.

"A few people have given voice to fears that the bill violates principles of our government. These fears, in my opinion, are groundless. The bill does not introduce anything new into our public school system nor does it violate the principles of our public educational system."

Under the Constitution of the United States and in the very nature of our free society the most fundamental liberty of all is, to use the words of the Supreme Court of the United States in the Oregon School Law case, "the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control."

The tragic events which have befallen the world since that opinion was delivered by a unanimous court in 1925 illuminate the profound truth of the two following sentences therein:

"The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him, direct his destiny, have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

The law now on our statute books is designed to protect and give reasonable freedom to the exercise of this liberty on the part of parents and to enable those parents, who wish to exercise it, to discharge this obligation of so interpreting to their children the standardized system of public education that it will not defeat and negative their high duty to prepare their children for the additional obligations of life in accordance with their conscience and religious conviction.

This law merely recognizes this most fundamental of alldemocratic principles of liberty and enables parents, who are so moved, to remind their children that they are not the mere creatures of the state and that a public standardized system of secular education is not intended to imply that spiritual faith and education in religious conviction may not be regarded as vital equipment for life and citizenship. In all this there is no violation whatever of the principle of a separation of church and state. That principle refers to a separation of control. It means that neither shall the state control the church nor the church control the state, but separation of control does not preclude recognition by the state of this fundamental right of liberty on the part of parents and the reasonable freedom which they should have in preventing what they may regard as implications adverse to religious faith from any overshadowing standardized system of public education.

Who can validly deny this right to parents who believe that education divorced from faith is a menace to the life of the individual and democracy itself? Who shall say that they have not the right to enjoy this principle of religious freedom?

The public schools of today have the dimensions of life itself. They provide for the education of children in practically every sound human interest—except religious faith. The omission and ignoring of religion by these schools inevitably conveys a powerful condemnatory suggestion and multitudes of parents have the right to a conviction, and indeed have the conviction deep in their hearts, that this implied negation as regards spiritual ideals and spiritual faith is at the root of much of the disorders and tragedies of our times. This statute does no more than to give to such parents a means of expression for such conviction and for the discharge of what they regard as their high duty not only toward their children but toward the system of public education itself and democracy itself.

This statute involves nothing which is basically new. The idea and plan of Released Time has been accepted and practiced by many boards of education in this state ever since the Court of Appeals sanctioned it in the White Plains case some fourteen years ago. Thereafter, the Board of Regents adopted rules embodying this plan and many boards of education in this state and in other states have been and arecarrying it on successfully and in the belief that it is an expression of the most fundamental principles of liberty and democracy.

Only today comes word that in the City of Ithaca where this plan has been set up the parents of 97 per cent of the children are exercising the free democratic right which this statute affords them. Who shall say that either there or in New York City they shall not enjoy this freedom?

Only last year the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York adopted the following statement:

"By and large States are not preserved and strengthened by culture or education or knowledge. They stand on character, morals and physical well being."

"Accordingly, we place First on our list of things necessary to produce 'The Schools New York State Wants' a Deep, True, Religious Understanding and Viewpoint."

If this Nation does not maintain its religious foundation—its whole structure will fail."

"We do not want church differences mixed up in our schools; but we do want our scholars to appreciate and understand the importance of their following and making the most of the faith with which they are identified. We want them to know and to live by the basic rules of life which each will find in his own religion."

"In spite of the fact that some hesitate to include religion in our educational program, we place it first."

If such a commercial and non-sectarian body as our State Chamber of Commerce can take this view as to our standardized secular public school system, have individual parents not the right to take the same view and to see in this statute a charter of freedom for their views as to the relation between education and spiritual faith?

Nor in this statute is there any element of segregation. All parents, all children and all religious faiths are treated alike and all pupils whose parents request it will leave the same classroom at the same moment. Our schools already excuse pupils for the observance of days regarded as holy by their respective faiths; and such observance has not been found to create segregation notwithstanding that the observance of a particular day affects only the children of a particular faith.