Church, State and Cynthia Dunbar

by Dan Quinn

In an article on the website of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Texas State Board of Education member Cynthia Dunbar is pretending to give history and constitutional lessons about the principle of church-state separation. The article explains that Dunbar’s critics — it focuses largely on the Texas Freedom Network — have been critical about her tasteless attempt to use prayer to score political points at the state board’s meeting last week. As we explained at the time, Dunbar’s prayer to open the meeting came before the board was to decide what, among other things, students would learn about separation of church and state in their social studies classes. Dunbar and other far-right board members don’t accept that separation of church and state is a key constitutional principle.

In the Liberty University article, Dunbar cackles over the fact that the prayer she recited was originally given in 1954 by the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. From the article:

“This is a huge story in that it exposes the bias of the liberal media and organizations that blasted me for saying ‘Christian land governed by Christian principles,’” Dunbar said. “These were not my words, but C.J. Earl Warren’s. TFN [Texas Freedom Network], a horribly liberal organization, tried to save face by saying that I had made a mockery out of religion. I beg to differ; I think the only thing of which I made a mockery were liberal organizations such as TFN, that simply do not know our nation’s history.”

Well, two things. First, Warren gave his prayer at a prayer breakfast, not an official government meeting (as Dunbar did). Second, Warren concurred with the landmark Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court decision eight years later. In upholding the principle of separation of church and state in that case, the court ruled that state-sponsored prayer in public schools is unconstitutional. From Justice Hugo Black’s opinion for the 6-1 majority, which Warren supported (emphasis added):

“The petitioners contend among other things that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regents’ prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause because that prayer was composed by governmental officials as a part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs. For this reason, petitioners argue, the State’s use of the Regents’ prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State. We agree with that contention since we think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.”

And:

“By the time of the adoption of the Constitution, our history shows that there was a widespread awareness among many Americans of the dangers of a union of Church and State. These people knew, some of them from bitter personal experience, that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government’s placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services. . . . “

And that, Justice Hugo explained, is why we have the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Chief Justice Warren clearly was a man of faith, but he knew that it was wrong for government to favor or disfavor any particular religion. Ms. Dunbar and other far-right members of the State Board of Education disagree. So now high school government students will be required to “contrast” the First Amendment’s language with the phrase “separation of church and state,” as if the Supreme Court, mainstream scholarship and the vast majority of Texans hadn’t already made clear that such separation is a key constitutional principle. But promoting ideological agendas is what you get when politicians, instead of classroom teachers and scholars, make decisions about what students learn in their public schools.

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