Amen To Abington: High Court Decision Preserved Children's Religious Liberty

I grew up in Ohio in late '80s through the '90s. My parents, sisters and I were one of the few South Asian families in town, and I was one of only two Hindu students in my graduating class of nearly 350 students.

Fortunately for me, it mattered little that I was Hindu and most of my classmates were Christian. I can't really remember any time the school brought in religion -- a rarity I appreciated living so close to the Bible belt.

But had I been in sixth grade in 1962 rather than 1992, things might have been different.

At that time, four states had on the books statutes that required excerpts from the Bible to be read daily to all students at public schools. Seven states required excerpts from the Bible to be read daily, but did not compel students to be present. And 24 states permitted and authorized Bible readings at public schools, but the practice was optional and at the school district's discretion. Ohio was an "optional" state.

But thanks to an important Supreme Court ruling issued 46 years ago today, my school was not given the option to prefer and push one religious belief. Nor did it have the chance to make me feel like an outsider by reading from the Bible as part of morning announcements.

The case that saved me from going through all this was Abington Township School Dist. v. Schempp. In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down statutes that required or permitted Bible readings in public schools. These state laws violated the Constitution's promise of religious liberty, the court held.

"[I]t is no defense to urge that the religious practices here may be relatively minor encroachments on the First Amendment," the high court said. "The breach of neutrality that is today a trickling stream may all too soon become a raging torrent and, in the words of Madison, 'it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.'"

Of course, the court's decision didn't come without criticism from early avatars of the Religious Right, who whined that the court was attacking Christians and taking our country away from its so-called Christian roots.

As the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham told the UPI in 1963, "[I]n my opinion ... the Supreme Court ... is wrong. ... Eighty percent of the American people want Bible reading and prayer in the schools. Why should a majority be so severely penalized ...?"

It's obvious to me that my Christian classmates who came through the public school system 30 years after this decision did not feel they were "penalized." Just because the school could no longer compel us to listen to Bible readings every morning didn't mean anyone was less able to practice his or her own faith.

In fact, it's just the opposite. In ordering government out of religion, the court's ruling allowed me the chance, just like everyone else, to make my own decisions about matters of faith. That's what seemed right to me back in 1992, and I'm grateful I never knew it any other way.