Excerpts From the Ruling in Smith v. School Commissioners

March 11, 1987 14 min read


In September of 1985, the plaintiffs Smith [a group of 624 Mobile County teachers, parents, and students, many of whom are fundamentalist Christians] filed a position paper, in the form of a brief, contending that the curriculum used in the [Mobile County] school system unconstitutionally advanced the religion of humanism, unconstitutionally inhibited Christianity, systematically excluded history of the contributions of Christianity to the American way of life, denied to teachers and students free speech and free exercise of their religion [as guaranteed under the First Amendment], and violated the Code of Alabama ... .

One of the positions [the plaintiffs] took was that humanism is being advanced in the textbooks. It is a religion and therefore should be excluded as have other religious beliefs. ...

The plaintiffs contend that they can demonstrate that the textbooks leave out all meaningful discussion of the part that Christianity and Judaism have played in the history of the United States, and when you do this you relegate these religions to a position of insignificance. On the contrary, the textbooks do teach secular humanism, which is a religion, and this emphasizes its importance all to the detriment of theistic religions.

The plaintiffs go on to say that they are not asking that their beliefs be imposed on anyone, just the opposite. Taxpayers, including themselves, should not be forced to support a system that works against their efforts to pass on their faith to their children.

The plaintiffs further contend that the state textbook-adoption process involves the state in the selection of textbooks to be utilized in the public school system of Alabama. The state statute that requires the utilization of these books inhibits the free-speech positions of the teachers.


The response of the defendants [Alabama Board of Education] to the contention of the plaintiffs is that education in the State of Alabama is not monolithic. The real driving force of education in this state is the local boards of education and it is they who are in fundamental control of the educational process. ... In regard to the plaintiffs’ claim relative to the free-exercise rights of the plaintiffs, the school board says that the state has adopted no ideological or antagonistic approach to religion of any sort in its textbooks. ...

In addition, [the board says] there is nothing about the curriculum that compels the plaintiffs or their children to believe the material contained in the textbooks to the exclusion of their otherwise Christian beliefs. ...

The state also contended that it could not accommodate different religious interests, for they would radically restrict the operating latitude of the state in the development of a sound currculum.

The defendant-intervenors are parents of students attending the Mobile County public school system. It is stated that they joined this case to defend the textbooks against the charges of the plaintiffs ... .

These defendants contend that ... secular humanism is not a religion. It is their stated position that secular humanism is nothing more than a convenient label that attaches to opinions and facts that do not comport with the religious world view; that where the textbooks do, in fact, contain statements consistent with the beliefs of some secular humanists, they likewise contain statements that are consistent with the beliefs of some Christians. This fact does not mean that these textbooks establish a religion or unconstitutionally inhibit anyone’s free exercise of their religion.

Conclusions Of Law

The plaintiff classes claim a violation of the First Amendment free-exercise and establishment clauses, as applied to the states through the 14th Amendment.

The State of Alabama, through its state board of education, is responsible for the selection of textbooks for use in the public schools in this state. The selection of textbooks is therefore state action, subject to the prohibitions of the First and 14th Amendments. ...

It must be first noted that this case is not about returning prayer to the schools. ... Neither does this case represent an attempt of narrow-minded or fanatical pro-religionists to force a public school system to teach only those opinions and facts they find digestible. Finally, this is not an attempt by anyone to censor materials deemed undesirable, improper, or immoral. What this case is about is the allegedly improper promotion of certain religious beliefs, thus violating the constitutional prohibitions against the establishment of religion ... .

A First Amendment Definition Of Religion

The [U.S.] Supreme Court has never stated an absolute definition of religion under the First Amendment. Rather, the High Court’s approach has been one of deciding whether conduct in a particular case falls within the protection of the free-exercise clause or the prohibition of the establishment clause.

The Court’s focus has shifted over the years from monotheism to a broad and mayhap vague notion of ultimate concerns and equivalent beliefs.

Out of these cases can be discerned several threads. First, the requirement of neutrality affirmed in every one ... means that the Constitution protects every religious belief without regard to its theological foundations or idiosyncracies. Second, what is religious is largely dependent on the way people in America currently think of religion, and this is a product of our past as a people. Third, the government cannot hinder or prohibit the growth of new beliefs by its definition of religion, since this growth is a product of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Fourth, the government is still obligated to perform its essential functions, thus reasonable boundaries may circumscribe acts performed in the name of religious freedom.

...[T]he government should not accept or deny the validity of religious beliefs, regardless of the nature of them. This has been expressed a number of times by stating that the government may not “establish’’ irreligion or a secular belief system hostile to religion. ...

Any definition of religion must not be limited, therefore, to traditional religions, but must encompass systems of belief that are equivalent to them for the believer.

...[A]ll religious beliefs may be classified by the questions they raise and the issues they address. ... These ... may be grouped as [follows]:
1) The existence of supernatural and/or transcendent reality;
2) The nature of man;
3) The ultimate end, or goal, or purpose of man’s existence, both individually and collectively;
4) The purpose and nature of the universe.

Humanism A Religion?

...All of the experts, and the [plaintiffs], agreed that [humanism] is a religion which:
makes a statement about supernatural existence a central pillar of its logic; defines the nature of man; sets forth a goal or purpose for individual and collective human existence; and defines the nature of the universe, and thereby delimits its purpose.

It purports to establish a closed definition of reality; not closed in that its adherents know everything, but in that everything is knowable: can be reconciled by the human intellect aided only by the devices of that intellect’s own creation or discovery. The most important belief of this religion is its denial of the transcendent and/or supernatural: there is no God, no creator, no divinity. By force of logic, the universe is thus self-existing, completely physical and hence, essentially knowable. Man is the product of evolutionary, physical forces. He is purely biological and has no supernatural or transcendent spiritual component or quality. Man’s individual purpose is to seek and obtain personal fulfillment by freely developing every talent and ability, especially his rational intellect, to the highest level. Man’s collective purpose is to seek the good life by the increase of every person’s freedom and potential for personal development.

In addition, humanism, as a belief system, erects a moral code and identifies the source of morality. This source is claimed to exist in humans and the social relationships of humans. ...

Secular humanism ... has organizational characteristics. Some groups are more structured and hierarchical, others less so. ... These organizations proselytize and preach their theories with the avowed purpose of persuading non-adherents to believe as they do. ...

...The entire body of thought has three key documents that furnish the text upon which the belief system rests as a platform: Humanist Manifesto I, Humanist Manifesto II, and the Secular Humanist Declaration.

These factors ... demonstrate the institutional character of secular humanism. They are evidence that this belief system is similar to groups traditionally afforded protection by the First Amendment religion clauses.

Furthermore, the movement has leaders, alive and deceased, who are acknowledged, even revered, as authorities on its purposes and application in daily life. These include John Dewey, Sidney Hook, Paul Kurtz, and Corliss Lamont. These men do not present a monolithic front, and this is another factor evidencing this as a religious movement. There is a diversity of views and philosophies within the humanist community very similiar to the schisms and deviates existing within the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities.

... For First Amendment purposes, the commitment of humanists to a non-supernatural and non-transcendent analysis, even to the point of hostility towards and outright attacks on all theistic religions, prevents them from maintaining the fiction that this is a non-religious discipline. ... Secular humanism is religious for First Amendment purposes because it makes statements based on faith-assumptions.
To demand that there be physical proof of the supernatural, and to claim that an apparent lack of proof means the supernatural cannot be accepted, is to create a religious creed. ... The court is holding that the promotion and advancement of areligious system occurs when one faith-theory is taught to the exclusion of others and this is prohibited by the First Amendment religion clauses.

... For purposes of the First Amendment, secular humanism is a religious belief system, entitled to the protections of, and subject to the prohibitions of, the religion clauses. It is not a mere scientific methodology that may be promoted and advanced in the public schools.

Religious Promotion in Textbooks?

The court now considers whether this religious belief system of Humanism ... is involved in a constitutional controversy before this court. As already noted, the Supreme Court has declared that teaching religious tenets in such a way as to promote or encourage a religion violates the religion clauses. Ths prohibition is not implicated by mere coincidence of ideas with religious tenets. Rather, there must be systematic, whether explicit or implicit, promotion of a belief system as a whole. The facts showed that the State of Alabama has on its state textbook list certain volumes that are being used by school systems in this state, which engage in such promotion.

The pattern in these books is the omission of religious aspects to significant American events. The religious significance of much of the history of the Puritans is ignored. The Great Awakenings are generally not mentioned. Colonial missionaries are either not mentioned or represented as oppressors of native Americans. The religious influence on the abolitionist, women’s suffrage, temperance, modern civil-rights and peace movements is ignored or diminished to insignificance. The role of religion in the lives of immigrants and minorities, especially southern blacks, is rarely mentioned. After the Civil War, religion is given almost no play. ...

... To what extent can omissions constitute a violation of the First Amendment religion clauses?

First, the Supreme Court has recognized a right to not be prevented from learning material if it was excluded for religious reasons and there is a legitimate secular or non-religious (as opposed to anti-religious or irreligious) reason for teaching the material. Thus an omission can constitute a First Amendment violation. Second, a number of commentators contend that sufficient omissions violate religious freedom. Furthermore, there is no doubt that adherents to the religion of the Humanist Manifestos affirmatively seek the exclusion of influence by theistic religions in the public schools. ... Omissions, if sufficient, do affect a person’s ability to develop religious beliefs and exercise that religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. Do the omissions in these history books cross that threshold? For some of them, yes. In addition to omitting particular historical events with religious significance, these books uniformly ignore the religious aspect of most American culture. The vast majority of Americans, for most of our history, have lived in a society in which religion was a part of daily life. This aspect was not something that most people even thought about, or had to; it was a given, it was axiomatic, just as telephones, automobiles, and fast food are a given of current culture. For many people, religion is still this important. One would never know it by reading these books. Religion, where treated at all, is generally represented as a private matter, only influencing American public life at some extraordinary moments. This view of religion is one humanists have been seeking to instill for 50 years. These books assist that effort by perpetuating an inaccurate historical picture. This court cannot define with absolute precision the way in which a history book should be written to cure these problems nor would that be desirable. What this court can and does say is that its independent perusal of these books forces it to [conclude]: These history books discriminate against the very concept of religion, and theistic religions in particular, by omissions so serious that a student learning history from them would not be appraised of relevant facts about America’s history. Even where the factor of religion is included, as in statements that some colonies were founded to obtain religious freedom, there is rarely an explanation of Christianity’s involvement. The student would reasonably assume, absent other information, that theistic religion is, at best, extraneous to an intelligent understanding of this country’s history. The texts reviewed are not merely bad history, but lack so many facts as to equal ideological promotion. The court notes that while both sets of defendants conducted an extensive defense of the home-economics books against which the plaintiffs’ heaviest artillery was trained, they did not even conduct a rear-guard action to ward off the assault on these deplorable history texts.

This court is not in the business of writing, or re-writing, history texts. But it is this court’s solemn duty and obligation under the First and 14th Amendments as interpreted by the Supreme Court to protect the rights of these plaintiffs and defendants to the free exercise of their various religions, unimpaired by an officially sponsored version of history that ignores the facts that give the First Amendment its importance and significance. The court will consider below what specific relief is appropriate.

The question arises how public schools can deal with topics that overlap with areas covered by religious belief. Mere coincidence between a statement in a textbook and religious belief is not an establishment of religion. However, some religious beliefs are so fundamental that the act of denying them will completely undermine that religion. In addition, denial of that belief will result in the affirmance of a contrary belief and result in the establishment of an opposing religion.

The state may teach that lying is wrong, as a social and civil regulation, but if, in so doing it advances a reason for the rule, the possible different reasons must be explained evenhandedly. As otherwise stated, the state may promote one particular reason over another in the public schools.

Teaching that moral choices are purely personal and can only be based on some autonomous, as yet undiscovered and unfulfilled, inner self is a sweeping fundamental belief that must not be promoted by the public schools. The state can, of course, teach the law of the land, which is that each person is responsible for, and will be held to account for, his actions. There is a distinct practical consequence between this fact, and the religious belief promoted, whether explicitly or implicitly, by saying “only you can decide what is right or wrong.’' With these books, the State of Alabama has overstepped its mark, and must withdraw to perform its proper non-religious functions.


The court, having concluded that the challenged textbooks violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment ..., is thus compelled to grant plaintiffs’ their requested relief barring the further advancement of the tenets of the religion of secular humanism. The court will enter an order and judgment granting an injunction ... to prohibit further use of the books listed therein and set out as Appendix M of this opinion. ...(See list of banned textbooks on page 19.) No other or further relief to any party is deemed required by the court under the facts in this case, except consideration of an award of attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs should they file a motion to this effect within 10 days.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1987 edition of Education Week as Excerpts From the Ruling in Smith v. School Commissioners