April 16, 2012

Religion and the Public School System: Why the West Matters

by Tisa Wenger

I recently had the good fortune to read Kathleen Holscher’s forthcoming book Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters and the Captured Schools Crisis in New Mexico, scheduled to appear very soon from Oxford University Press. This is a book that I think deserves a lot of attention, and I thought I’d give the readers of this blog a little sampling of what it might bring to our conversation.

Religious Lessons tells the story of Zellers v. Huff, also known as the “Dixon case,” decided by New Mexico’s Supreme Court in 1949. The case challenged the legality of Catholic sisters teaching in the state’s public schools, as well as the arrangements that had allowed former Catholic parochial schools to become the local public schools in many districts in the state. Upset by such an arrangement in their town, Protestant parents in the town of Dixon filed suit in district court so that their children would not be taught by Catholic sisters in a building that had been a parochial school, with many religious items in the classrooms. The case raised a variety of questions connected to the legal principle of the separation of church and state. Could teachers who were also Catholic nuns wear their religious habits during school hours? What sorts of religious objects and artwork were permissible on school grounds, and where? Was it legal for teachers to provide religious education to Catholic students outside of regular school hours?

This case is not very well remembered today, even by historians, and it is not usually included in the corpus of key First Amendment cases from the mid-twentieth century. But in the late 1940s it sparked a gigantic public outcry across the country, and as Holscher says, “its litigation and the extra-judicial hubbub that accompanied it said more about the relation of church and state within the lives and imaginations of midcentury Americans than precedent-setting cases from the period ever did.” This was the case that motivated the formation of the group Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (POAU), with the primary agenda of challenging all Catholic incursions into the public schools. The Dixon schools inspired the moniker “captive schools,” suggesting a sinister Catholic plan to take over America’s schools, and through them the nation.

Public school children in Blanco, NM, 1942.  From the collection of Kathleen Holscher.
Holscher provides a finely-grained study of the many different players involved in this case, and the complex and contradictory ways in which they understood the issues involved. Local context makes all the difference here. New Mexico, of course, had a very long Catholic history, and there were compelling reasons for many of its school boards to form cooperative arrangements with the church to make public schools possible in their districts. Most local people, who were predominantly Hispanic and Catholic, had few if any reservations about these schools, although as Holscher points out their interests could be quite different from those of the church. Holscher also shows how the sisters who taught in these schools attempted, in a variety of ways, to honor the “nonsectarian” public school standard and to keep specifically Catholic religious teachings and practices apart from their classrooms. But the situation looked very different to the Protestant minority, both Hispanic and Anglo, that had developed in some parts of the state. And from the court’s perspective such schools almost inevitably violated the “nonsectarian” public school standard—which in most of the nation had assumed a generically Protestant religious identity, and had been imported into New Mexico—along with the newer “separationist” standard that advocated a complete removal of any and all religious practice from the public schools.

So, what does this case and this book offer to our ongoing conversation on this blog about religion in the American west? My first thought here is that Holscher places a very western story at the center of a pivotal national debate. Protestant-Catholic tensions and efforts at dialogue in mid-twentieth-century America would have looked very different without the Dixon case and the consequent trope of the “captive schools.” POAU and its allies generalized that story to make it appear that Catholics were taking over schools all over America. Similar public-parochial arrangements did exist elsewhere in the country, especially in cities like Detroit that had significant Catholic populations, but nowhere were they as prevalent as they were in New Mexico. The events Holscher recounts are very specifically rooted in the cultural and religious history of New Mexico—a quintessentially western story. She clearly shows the importance of this story to national debates over church-state separation that are not generally associated with the west. And in so doing she illustrates one of our favorite talking points: just how important it is for historians of American religion to pay attention to the west.

1 comment:

Brett Hendrickson said...

Sounds like a great read--can't wait to check it out.
What strikes me from your post is that the Protestants were the ones upset about potential Catholic bias in the schools. This seems like the exact opposite narrative to the one that justified the proliferation of Catholic schools in much of the rest of the nation, namely, that the supposedly nonsectarian public schools were, in fact, spreading a Protestant ethos.
New Mexico (and the West in general to some extent) is so fun because it can often turn these national narratives upside-down.