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The Maundy Monday Newsletter - This Week in History March 6 - March 12.
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The Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution is tucked nicely into the First Amendment, prohibiting the government from establishing a national religion. As discussed on Friday, we have some conflicts regarding everything. This would include religion, its meaning, and its relationship history related to the country’s founding, but that is for another time.
There’s also this thing called the Free Exercise Clause, which means that citizens can freely practice the religion of their choice. Here too, is some conflict on where and how one can express that religion.
Sometimes, both of these clauses come into conflict with each other. We tend to call these conflicts the fight over the separation of church and state, a term attributed to President Jefferson, who had a conflict with his bible. Jefferson settled the matter to suit his religious views, where he cut references he didn’t like, like Jesus Christ’s Resurrection. He just took out the ending of the story. I guess for Tom, everyone dies at the end.
Anyway, this week in US History, we review the Supreme Court case McCollum v. Board of Education, which was decided on March 8, 1848, and resulted in religious instruction being prohibited in public schools.
Vashti McCollum was an atheist mother who sued the school system of Champaign, Illinois, which, supported by a strange religious organization of three different religious beliefs, brought religious instructors to various schools to teach religion. Students were then encouraged to attend faith instruction held during school hours voluntarily. I’m not sure what an atheist kid in the late 1940s is going to do when every one of his classmates is attending religion classes and he is not. Do you just sit in an empty classroom?
McCollum didn’t appreciate that and sued, saying her son was being ostracized because he didn’t attend. The local circuit court ruled for the school district, and the Illinois Supreme Court concurred. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and ruled in her favor by an 8-1 vote, and that was the end of that.
The only justice on the Court at this time that I am familiar with is Hugo Black. Mainly because he was a member of the Klan and hated Catholics. As a Catholic who reads a bible that keeps the story of Jesus’ Resurrection intact, this is not my favorite dude.
Black wrote the longwinded majority opinion that asserted the state “can’t do this,” The lone dissenter, a guy whose last name was Reed, said in a much shorter response, “I disagree.” But the matter was settled - the school was forced to end the practice.
We still face religious conflicts. Two Supreme Court decisions in the past 20 years have allowed states to provide vouchers to subsidize private and religious education. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris from Ohio in 2002 and Carson v. Makin from Maine in 2020. Both decisions came down to allowing the state to support religious education with taxpayer money, and both cases were decided along conservative and liberal lines, and the conservatives won. I could have used a heck of a lot of state vouchers to get through my expensive private religious education, that’s for sure.
Okay, let's highlight what else happened this week. Here's what I got:
The Treaty that ended the Mexican War was approved on March 10, 1848. The Senate accepted the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave the US, Texas, California, and other territories. The funny thing is that President Polk fired the US negotiator, Nicholas Trist, on his return to Washington because Polk was upset that the negotiations didn’t take place in Washington. In case you were wondering, Polk accepted the deal even though he wanted more of Mexico than we got.
Janet Reno was the first woman confirmed as Attorney General on March 11, 1993. I believe Reno was President Clinton’s tenth choice for AG and oversaw the Waco Siege I mentioned last week. I also wrote about her last year during the state ranking series. The confirmation vote was 98-0. She passed away from Parkinson's disease in 2016 at 78.
FDR delivered his first Fired Side Chat on March 12, 1932. A week after being sworn in as the 32nd president, the highly OKH presidential ranked executive spoke on the banking crisis confronting the nation during the early stages of the Great Depression. He would go on to give about 30 of these.
Last year the Court decided on a case that focused on Free Exercise Clause. Joseph Kennedy, a football coach in Washington state, sued a school district for firing him over praying after a game at the 50-yard line. I’m not one to judge where and when someone prays, but if I’m coaching football, I’m praying in the end zone because that’s where the scoring happens. I certainly prayed before games, but I don’t remember doing it afterward. Also, praying so publicly on the field seems to be a football-specific thing. Having said that, I prayed a lot at the foul line during my basketball playing career.
In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the court ruled in his favor 6-3, again along ideologue lines. Justice Gorsuch, Alito, and Thomas tripped over themselves to write the majority and concurrent opinions. Gorsuch said Kennedy prayed at a time when people would be spending time making dinner reservations, which has to be the first time in the court’s history that reference was ever used.
In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor included pictures. I’m not sure what they were, but they didn’t seem to help.
We are back on Friday with the next ranking of the amendments. Does anyone want to guess which one will be next?
Have a great week!