Supreme Court Religion Cases

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I've discovered that oyez.org has Supreme Court audio going back to the 1960s. I've been listening to some religion cases from the early 1960s, and I've noticed some very interesting things. I listened to three different cases (two decided together), and I wrote up a bunch of thoughts along the way. I wanted to post some on the substantive issues of the cases, but for this post I'm restricting myself to some interesting observations on side issues that came up along the way. The cases involved have to do with prayer and Bible reading in public schools.

It's fascinating listening to these oral arguments a half-century later. It's like listening to radio broadcasts from the period, which our local NPR station plays sometimes in the evenings, except these are all names I've read about and who have authored opinions that have shaped the application of constitutional rights that we all just assume now. It's hard for me to imagine its being a live issue legally whether you can author a prayer for students to say every morning in school or whether you can have students reading passages from the Bible every single day over a loudspeaker to a whole school.

One of the issues that kept coming up when the Supreme Court took public Bible reading in schools to be sectarian was which Bible translation was being used. It seems that the King James Version was seen as particularly sectarian, and the only other Bible versions they even mentioned were the Douay-Reims translation of the Latin Vulgate (which apparently at the time was the standard English version among Catholics) and some Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures that I'd never heard of before this (the Jewish Publication Society version wasn't until I was in college).

Apparently there were riots at some point in the past over which Bible version was read when Catholics tried to get the Douay-Rheims translation included along with the KJV in school readings, and there was a public book-burning of the RSV as late as the early 1950s. At least the criticism of the TNIV hasn't usually gotten to those kinds of extremes.

One lawyer opposing Bible-reading represented Unitarians, whose claim was that reading the KJV opposed their beliefs by favoring the Trinity (e.g. for capitalizing "Spirit" in Genesis 1, which of course wouldn't be heard in a public reading, but he probably didn't know enough to point out the Trinitarian additions in the KJV in I John, which would have been a much stronger argument).

In a completely unrelated issue, I noticed at least three different people (among the various lawyers and justices) using the word 'infants' to refer to fifteen-year-olds without anyone thinking anything funny was going on with such a use. What's up with that? If Baptists had realized that that word could refer to a teenager, they would have been perfectly fine with Presbyterian views of baptism all these years.

One participant argued that the use of the name "Holy Bible" showed sectarianism. The response was that this is not a description but a name. It's probably less so now, but I think that was certainly right. In the 1960s, you probably couldn't buy a Bible without that title, and I suspect many people who didn't see the Bible as authoritative for life called it that without considering its meaning as a description, just as many Jews use 'Jesus Christ' without intending any Messianic overtones.

I intend to post some thoughts on more substantive issues in separate posts. Some of them are not quite central to the case but involve detailed issues and deserve their own posts. It would have been a huge post to include all that plus the main issues plus these side points all in one post, so I'm sort of working my way toward the central questions of the case.

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