Federal Court Finds Secular Humanism a Religion

By Kirsten Goldberg — March 11, 1987 7 min read
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A federal judge in Mobile, Ala., last week ordered 44 textbooks removed from the Alabama public schools because, he said, they unconstitutionally promote the “religious belief system’’ of secular humanism.

In addition, said U.S. District Judge W. Brevard Hand, they largely omit the role of Judeo-Christian religious teachings in American history.

The landmark 172-page ruling was widely viewed as a major victory for fundamentalist Christians, many of whom have long contended that secular humanism is a religion that places man’s values above any divine authority, and that its tenets pervade the public schools’ curricula.

The judge’s March 4 decision marked the first time that a federal court has ruled that humanism is the equivalent of a religion for First Amendment purposes.

“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,’' Judge Hand wrote.

“With these books, the State of Alabama has overstepped its mark, and must withdraw to perform its proper non-religious functions,’' he concluded.

The chairman of the civil-liberties group that aided the state board of education in its defense of the textbooks characterized the decision as “judicial book burning,’' and suggested that an appeal was imminent.

“What is created here today by this ruling is nothing less than government censorship of the school curriculum,’' said John H. Buchanan, chairman of People for the American Way, a lobbying group that monitors civil-liberties issues.

Charles Coody, a lawyer for the state board, said decisions to appeal the ruling or to seek a stay of the order would not be made until after the board’s next meeting on March 12.

Robert K. Skolrood, executive director of the National Legal Foundation--a group founded by the television evangelist Pat Robertson that supported the citizens’ group opposing the textbooks--applauded the ruling, saying: “Humanism is out of the closet, for the first time.’'

“It’s a terrible thing when only one moral perspective--humanism--is indoctrinated in our children,’' added Thomas O. Kotouc, a Montgomery, Ala., lawyer who also represented the plaintiffs.

“In humanism, everything is relative and based on feelings and peer pressure, not on what is right,’' he maintained. “That’s simply out of step with American public life.’'

Roots in Prayer Case

The elementary- and secondary-level texts in home economics, history, and social studies were challenged by 624 parents, teachers, and students, many of whom are fundamentalist Christians. The suit, Smith v. School Commissioners of Mobile County, Ala., originally began as a challenge to a state law, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 1985, that permitted students to begin their school day with a moment of silence for prayer or meditation.

The Smith group entered the original case on the side of the state defendants to offer arguments in favor of the moment-of-silence law. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, Judge Hand realigned the group as the plaintiffs in the case, and agreed to consider their argument that secular humanism was being taught in Mobile County’s schools in violation of the First Amendment.

The plaintiffs argued that home-economics textbooks, for example, promoted humanist beliefs while ignoring those based on Christian teachings.

They also contended that history and social-studies texts ignored the role of Judeo-Christian religions in nearly all aspects of American life, from the Pilgrims to the civil-rights movement. Such omissions, they charged, inhibited their free exercise of religion.

The state board countered that it did not adopt an antagonistic approach to religion in the selection of textbooks for use in the state’s public schools. In addition, it argued that schoolchildren were not compelled in any way to believe material in the books if it contradicted their religions’ teachings.

A second group of Mobile citizens, who entered the case on the side of the state board and were supported by People for the American Way, argued that the plaintiffs were using the label of “secular humanism’’ to attack curricular materials that they found offensive.

Judge’s Opinion

In his opinion, Judge Hand defined humanism as a religious belief system that holds that “everything is knowable.’'

“The most important belief of this religion is its denial of the transcendent and/or supernatural: there is no God, no creator, no divinity,’' the judge continued. “By force of logic, the universe is thus self-existing, completely physical and hence, essentially knowable.’'

Judge Hand noted that other federal courts have held that religions necessarily involve a belief in a supernatural being. But, he added, that definition discriminates against non-theistic beliefs.

“Whenever a belief system deals with fundamental questions of the nature of reality and man’s relationship to reality, it deals with essentially religious questions,’' he wrote. “A religion need not posit a belief in a deity.’'

Thus, the judge said, “for the 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 [of the First Amendment]. It is not a mere scientific methodology that may be promoted and advanced in the public schools.’'

Textbooks Criticized

The high-school home-economics textbooks challenged by the plaintiffs “are imbued with these [humanistic] religious assumptions in their discussions of human relationships,’' the judge wrote.

In addition, he held that the challenged history and social-studies books systematically omitted references to the religious aspects of American history, including the Puritans, colonial missionaries, abolitionists, women’s suffrage, temperance, civil rights, and the peace movement.

Such omissions, he said, violated the plaintiffs’ rights to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.

“Omissions, if sufficient, do affect a person’s ability to develop religious beliefs and exercise that religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution,’' he wrote. “The texts are not merely bad history, but lack so many facts as to equal ideological promotion.’'

Public-school textbooks “must not present faith-based systems to the exclusion of other faith-based systems,’' Judge Hand held.

In order to protect the rights of the plaintiffs and all other Alabama citizens holding similar beliefs, he said, the state must remove the offending books from the state’s list of approved textbooks. They can be used only as reference materials in comparative-religion courses, the judge said.

Under Alabama law, school districts cannot use books that have not been approved by the state textbook-selection committee. Some districts, however, have special permission to use books that are not on the committee’s list. In such cases, Judge Hand ruled, the state board must revoke any approval it has granted for the use of the books.

‘Commandeered’ Curriculum

Spokesmen for several major educational associations were quick to denounce the decision.

“It is terribly disappointing that the courts have chosen to commandeer the educational curriculum,’' said Phyllis L. Blaunstein, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, predicted that school districts would not know how to eliminate secular humanism from their classrooms.

But William B. Ball, a lawyer who has defended many Christian groups in similar cases, applauded the ruling. “Secular humanism is, on the part of some people, a very conscious and defined religion, and I think that if you regard secular humanism as being a religion, you can’t support it by tax funds,’' he said.

Rejection Predicted

Other lawyers familiar with First Amendment issues predicted that the ruling would be overturned if it is appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

“It’s laughable, and it’s so outrageous, I have no doubt it will be overturned on appeal,’' said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

“It’s such an extreme opinion that it is hard to imagine that it is has much chance of surviving,’' added David H. Remes, a lawyer for the Washington firm Covington & Burling.

“Judge Hand has allowed the enemies of an entire spectrum of values, opinions, beliefs, and thought, to label them as a ‘religion’ and thereby justify their suppression in the public schools,’' Mr. Remes said.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, however, said they were confident of victory before the 11th Circuit Court.

“We feel like this is a real victory for academic freedom,’' said Mr. Kotouc, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “It’s not censorship, because Judge Hand is increasing access to information, by forcing the state textbook-adoption committee to select books that do not exclude information about religious history.’'

Judge Hand’s ruling came four months after a federal district court in Tennessee ruled that the children of fundamentalist Christians could “opt out’’ of reading classes that used textbooks that offend their beliefs.

In addition, in coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down its ruling in a case challenging a Louisiana law mandating balanced treatment for the theories of evolution and “creation science’’ in that state’s public-school classrooms.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1987 edition of Education Week as Federal Court Finds Secular Humanism a Religion


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