The year 2013 marks a noteworthy anniversary: it has been fifty years since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the conjoined cases Abingdon School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett ended school-sponsored Bible reading in American public schools. This decision came on the heels of 1962’s Engel v. Vitale, which ended school-sponsored prayer. Those decisions formed a one-two punch that awakened America’s religious minorities (the nonreligious most definitely included) to the idea that the courts might be relied on to curb majority-Christian privilege in ways no legislatures would dare to.
Of the two cases, Abingdon was far more important from a legal perspective. But the plaintiff in Murray—to be precise, the child plaintiff’s mother—worked harder to use her case as a springboard to notoriety. Madalyn Murray (later Madalyn Murray O’Hair) made herself a household name and launched the now-thriving American Atheists. To this day, millions of Americans mistakenly believe that O’Hair drove both prayer and the Bible from public schools single-handedly. That is wrong on two counts: Engel had ended school-sponsored prayer the year before, and Abingdon v. Schempp would have terminated school-sponsored Bible reading even if Murray v. Curlett had never been filed.
Abingdon was an eye-opener for me personally, though I was all of seven at the time. I was not yet a secular humanist, but I was a member of a religious minority. I was a pre-Vatican II Catholic child who for complex reasons attended a majority-Protestant public school where teacher-led prayers and Bible readings were daily irritations. Young as I was, I knew that the final passage concluding the Lord’s Prayer (“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory” and so on) was something Protestants used and Catholics did not. I could distinguish the preferred Protestant and Catholic melodies for “Away in a Manger.” When the Lord’s Prayer came over the school loudspeakers with the Protestant finale attached—a scurrilous addendum that I’d been taught could endanger my salvation just by hearing it—or when “Away in a Manger” was performed at Christmas assemblies, invariably to the Protestant melody—ditto—I would walk home from school praying that I wouldn’t get hit by a truck and wondering why my country and my community so lusted to endanger my soul. When Engel and Abingdon ended school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading one after the other, little Catholic Tom Flynn was freed from enforced exposure to Protestantism in school—and at the tender age of seven, a church-state activist was born.* I became an atheist in my twenties (secular humanism came later), but I never forgot how it had felt to be a minority believer under the yoke of compulsory majoritarian observance. Most of all, I never forgot how good it felt when that stopped!
Along the way, I formed some unhelpful expectations that I would later discover I shared with many church-state separation activists during the latter decades of the twentieth century. As a group, we were too quick to see in Engel and Abingdon a blueprint for inevitable success. By bringing and winning an infinite chain of similar establishment-clause cases, we imagined that we would leap into a bright future where every hint of religious symbolism and practice might be removed from the public square. (That overoptimistic view failed to anticipate manic grassroots organizing on the part of Christian conservatives or that conservative jurists would flock to the federal bench partly in reaction against Engel, Abingdon, and, of course, Roe v. Wade.) At the same time, we came to assume that we could win our victories for separation in the courts alone, with no need for messy, costly campaigning to persuade public opinion.
Today’s fighters for church-state separation have learned greater discretion. The indiscriminate filing of establishment-clause cases can lead to destructive legal outcomes—consider Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (2007), in which the high court overturned a longtime precedent that had nearly automatically granted standing to citizens alleging establishment-clause violations. In a Massachusetts case in which the Center for Inquiry plans to file a supportive amicus curiae brief, the American Humanist Association is for the first time challenging “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance under the principle of equal protection rather than under the establishment clause. If successful, equal protection may prove the most favorable avenue for further church-state activism in the courts.
Even with those caveats, the Abingdon/Murray decisions represent a powerful milestone for fair treatment of religious minorities, both believing and unbelieving. Its golden anniversary strongly merits our appreciation.
* Much of this autobiographical material is drawn from my 1993 book, The Trouble with Christmas (Prometheus Books, 2007).