Religious Education

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This early attempt at decentralization came to dominate New York politics over the following months, with at least one public meeting exploding into sectarian violence. Following the city elections of 1842, a Protestant mob attacked Hughes’s residence, smashing doors and windows, and was prevented from doing worse only by the hasty intervention of the police, the militia, and a group of Irishwomen who formed a human chain around the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral to keep “sinners off.”

HUGHES CAME TO BELIEVE A NEUTRAL SCHOOL SYSTEM WAS IMPOSSIBLE.

By now, new state elections had made the passage of the school bill a certainty. But a key dilemma remained. What would happen to those who found themselves in a ward dominated by a different faith? Didn’t they still have some constitutional rights as individuals? The compromise that passed the legislature went a long way toward the basic shape of the public school today. A crucial amendment to the bill mandated that no sectarian religious instruction was to be offered. All public schools would now educate students in the three Rs and leave religion to the churches.

The amended bill was triumphantly signed into law by Governor Seward, and it pleased no one. Nativists swept the school-board elections in 1843 and soon ruled that reading the Bible in class was not “sectarian.” This would largely remain the case for more than a hundred years, until the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling banning organized prayer in the schools. It also served to confirm the contention of John Hughes that a truly neutral public school system was an impossibility. Out of necessity, he permitted Catholic children to attend public schools but refocused all his efforts on building up a parochial system. By 1862, two years before his death, New York Catholic schools had enrolled some 15,000 pupils, and Hughes was known as the father of Catholic education in America.

No doubt modern advocates and opponents of vouchers alike will draw what lessons they like from this nineteenth-century debate. Supporters will heed Hughes’s arguments that even supposed nonsectarianism is really sectarian and back the right of parents to give their children whatever education they deem fit, without an added financial burden. Opponents will point to the divisiveness inherent in all attempts to hand over public monies for religious instruction. Indeed, perhaps the most intriguing—and exasperating—thing about the school debate is its ability to entangle political allegiances. Should supporters of school prayer continue to back a common prayer for all in public schools or support vouchers and many different prayers? Will multiculturalists really support funding for schools run by the Nation of Islam—or the Aryan Nation?

Yet there may be a deeper moral here, beneath William Seward’s very different, pragmatic approaches, made only two years apart and both to very much the same end. Whether giving public money to Catholic schools or banning religious instruction in public schools altogether, what Seward sought above all was universal education, which he deemed necessary for forging a just and democratic society. Or, as he said regarding immigrant Americans, “I solicit their education less from sympathy, than because the welfare of the state demands it, and cannot dispense with it.”

No matter what we decide on the proper boundaries of church and state, it seems difficult to believe that we can today, any more than we could in 1840, dispense with a healthy and accessible public school system and still maintain ourselves as a strong, united nation.