Constitutions, Courts and the Study of Religion
Posted on 25. May, 2009 by James Miller
|Title||Constitutions, Courts and the Study of Religion|
|Publication Type||Journal Article|
|Year of Publication||1977|
|Journal||Journal of the American Academy of Religion|
Court deliberations and decisions have some bearing on the study of religion in colleges and universities which are supported in some way from tax monies. U.S. Supreme Court "doctrine" on religion and the state involves a threefold test of constitutionality. There must be: (1) a clear "secular purpose"; (2) a "direct and immediate" (formerly "primary") "effect" of neither advancing nor inhibiting religion ("neutrality"); and (3) avoidance of undue "entanglement" of religion and government. The Court language which has become controlling in the application of this "doctrine" to the study of religion is: "objectively as part of a secular program of education...." This language was appealed to extensively in the one court case in which a state university course relating to religion was directly challenged. The court records and opinions in that case, in which two Bible Presbyterian clergymen attempted unsuccessfully to force the University of Washington to discontinue the course "The Bible as Literature," are examined. So also are those in two recent cases in which public support of the study of religion and theology was the object of some inquiry in connection with constitutional challenges of public support of certain religious or church-related colleges in Connecticut and Maryland. In one of these cases the courts found that the courses in religion and theology at the four defendant Catholic colleges in Connecticut were constitutionally acceptable because academic freedom was espoused at those colleges, there was no evidence of efforts to indoctrinate or proselytize, the courses covered a wide range of human religious experiences and involved teachers of various faiths, and they fitted into the "predominant higher education mission" of those institutions "to provide their students with a secular education...." In the other case the District Court, while ruling that public aid to the defendant Maryland colleges is constitutional, excluded courses in theology and religion from that aid. Despite the testimony of an expert witness that these courses were academically legitimate, the Court concluded that a "possibility" existed that they were designed primarily to deepen "religious experiences in a particular faith" and hence might not be taught in accordance with accepted academic canons. Since the U.S. Supreme Court did not consider this aspect of the case some doubt remains, not only about those particular courses but also, by implication, about similar courses in similar situations. Brief allusion is also made to court use of scholarship in religion, and, in a concluding statement, the author suggests that for scholars in religion the distinction between the study of religion and its practice continues to be appropriate.