Weighing the Court by James Hitchcock

Weighing the Court

In the term just ended the Supreme Court decided an unusual number of cases with relevance to the religious and moral state of the nation. Specifically it:

• forbade students in Texas to recite public prayers before high-school football games;

• struck down a law forbidding partial-birth abortions;

• approved the use of public money to buy computers for students in private schools;

• ruled that the Boy Scouts of America may exclude homosexuals from serving as scout masters; and

• forbade a public school district to issue a disclaimer whenever the theory of evolution is taught.

You win some, you lose some.

In the case about evolution, the school district required that, wherever the theory of evolution is taught, students should be told that it is taught only as scientific theory and is not intended to undermine other explanations of the universe. The lower courts thought this was a ploy to promote biblical creation.

To most Catholics the teaching of evolution is not a problem, but many Protestants find it contrary to their faith, and some evolutionists agree with them, holding that the idea of evolution makes impossible any belief in a benign creator.

Whenever it deals with evolution, the Court in effect inhibits free expression. No one now urges that evolution be banned from the curriculum, but the Court insists that it be given a protected place.

The school prayer case was filed by Catholics and Mormons, who complained that the religious tenor of their school was Baptist. The school responded by authorizing students themselves to decide whether they wanted some public expression at football games, what it should be, and who should speak. The Court found that this constituted “endorsement” of prayer by the school.


James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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