The Origins of Secular Public Education: The New York School Controversy, 1840-1842

60 Pages Posted: 4 Oct 2007 Last revised: 1 Sep 2008

See all articles by Ian C. Bartrum

Ian C. Bartrum

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law

Abstract

As the title suggests, this article explores the historical origins of secular public education, with a particular focus on the controversy surrounding the Catholic petitions for school funding in nineteenth-century New York City. The article first examines the development of Protestant nonsectarian common schools in the northeast, then turns to the New York controversy in detail, and finally explores that controversy's legacy in state constitutions and the Supreme Court. It is particularly concerned with two ideas generated in New York: (1) Bishop John Hughes' objection to nonsectarianism as the 'sectarianism of infidelity'; and (2) New York Secretary of State John Spencer's proposed policy of 'absolute non-intervention' in school religion. The article traces these ideas through the 1960s school prayer decisions, where they appear as Justice Stewart's objections to 'the religion of secularism,' and the general contention that disestablishment requires only that the government not favor one religion over another. In the process, it examines the conceptual problems that arise when we try to enforce religious neutrality by exclusion, rather than inclusion. Ultimately, the article concludes that the Court chose exclusive neutrality, not because it best served the constitutional mandate, but because it forwarded a social policy - begun with the common schools - that treats public schools as nationalizing institutions. Thus, I contend that the Court has chosen to promote cultural assimilation over authentic freedom of conscience.

Keywords: establishment, education, religion, first amendment, secularism, catholic

Suggested Citation

Bartrum, Ian C., The Origins of Secular Public Education: The New York School Controversy, 1840-1842. NYU Journal of Law & Liberty, Vol. 3, p. 267. 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1019159

Ian C. Bartrum (Contact Author)

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law ( email )

4505 South Maryland Parkway
Box 451003
Las Vegas, NV 89154
United States

HOME PAGE: http://https://law.unlv.edu/faculty/ian-bartrum

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