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THE FOURTH R: Conflicts over Religion in America's Public Schools

Joan DelFattore, Author
Joan DelFattore, Author . Yale Univ. $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-300-10217-8
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DelFattore, professor of English and legal studies at the University of Delaware and author of What Johnny Shouldn't Read , makes a scholarly but accessible analysis of the history of the debate over religious speech in America's public schools. While her emphasis is on the evolution of legal precedent, she sets court decisions in the context of the political and social struggles prompting judicial or legislative intervention, even including an appendix identifying contemporary advocacy groups. In early America, she notes, the question wasn't "whether to promote religion but whose religion to promote." Protestants believed themselves so mainstream that their school prayers could be considered "nonsectarian," while Catholics opposed use of the King James Bible, the singing of Protestant hymns and the Protestant custom of prayer without commentary. School boards responded by generating what they considered generic prayers and allowing dissenters to abstain, but pressure mounted in the early 20th century to eliminate prayer altogether, since, some said, it represented state endorsement of religion. Finally, in a series of rulings in the 1960s, the Supreme Court banned school authorities from instituting prayers, regardless of their generality. Pro-prayer forces fought back every way they could—proposed constitutional amendments, state court challenges, silent prayer initiatives—but it is the right to free speech that has saved prayer so far, according to the author. Under the "equal access" doctrine, both secular and religious expression by students are equally protected. DelFattore walks readers through the ins-and-outs of this long, complex and unfinished battle with clarity, evenhandedness and even a touch of humor. (Mar.)

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