I am convinced that no liberty is more essential to the continued vitality of the free society which our Constitution guarantees than is the religious liberty protected by the Free Exercise Clause explicit in the First Amendment and imbedded in the Fourteenth.
The lone dissenter in the Supreme Court’s disavowal of public school devotions, Justice Potter Stewart scolded his brethren on the bench for according to the Establishment Clause “a meaning which neither the words, the history, nor the intention of the authors of that specific constitutional provision even remotely suggests.” He predicted “many situations where legitimate claims under the Free Exercise Clause will run into head-on collision with the Court’s insensitive and sterile construction of the Establishment Clause.”
True to Stewart’s forecast, the two clauses collided head-on in thousands of classrooms all over the country this month. The result was largely compliance with the court’s decision that “the practices at issue and the laws requiring them are unconstitutional.” But there were still many schools where prayers and Bible reading echoed down the corridors during opening exercises.
At least eleven states have issued official statements allowing devotional exercises to continue or leaving the decision to local jurisdictions: New Hampshire, Idaho, Delaware, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama (where Bible reading is mandatory).
Defiance in the South was not surprising in view of that area’s uncomfortable position following other Supreme Court decisions during the past decade. The measure of official opposition in the North had not been predicted.
The first legal action to halt defiance of ...1
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