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Murray v. Curlett

Decided: April 6, 1962.

MURRAY ET AL.
v.
CURLETT ET AL.



Appeal from the Superior Court of Baltimore City; Prendergast, J.

Brune, C.J., and Henderson, Prescott, Horney and Marbury, JJ., and reargued before Brune, C.J., and Henderson, Hammond, Prescott, Horney, Marbury and Barrett, Associate Judge of the Third Judicial Circuit, specially assigned, JJ. Horney, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. Brune, C.J., filed the dissenting opinion, in which Henderson and Prescott, JJ., concur.

Horney

This appeal presents the question of whether the daily opening exercises of the Baltimore City public schools -- wherein the Holy Bible is read and the Lord's Prayer is recited -- violate the constitutional rights of a student and his mother who claim they are atheists.

The judgment appealed from is one for costs entered by the lower court after it had sustained without leave to amend the demurrer of the appellees (the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City and the president and other individual members thereof constituting the "Board") to the petition of the appellants (William J. Murray, III, the "student," and Madalyn E. Murray, the "mother" or "parent") for a writ of mandamus. The writ was sought to compel the Board to "rescind and cancel" a rule (and a recent amendment of it) adopted by the Board in 1905, pursuant to the power and authority conferred on it by the State, concerning the opening exercise program in the public schools. The rule and amendment attacked is designated as § 6 of Article VI of the Rules of the Board, and reads as follows:

"Section 6 -- Opening Exercises. Each school, either collectively or in classes, shall be opened by the reading, without comment, of a chapter in the Holy Bible and/or the use of the Lord's Prayer. The Douay version may be used by those pupils who prefer it. Appropriate patriotic exercises should [also] be held as a part of the general opening exercise of the school

or class. Any child shall be excused from participating in the opening exercises or from attending the opening exercises upon written request of his parent or guardian."

The italicized portion of the rule was added by an amendment on November 17, 1960, in order to comply with an opinion rendered by the Attorney General (C. Ferdinand Sybert, now a member of this Court) at the request of the State Superintendent of Schools following a protest by the appellants to the effect that to require the atheistic student to attend the daily exercises was to compel him to participate in a religious training program that was offensive to him.

The petition, in addition to stating that the fourteen year old boy is a student in a public school and that the parent is a resident and taxpayer, further states that the practice under the rule had been to read from the King James version of the Bible and that the student, until the adoption of the amendment, was "required and compelled" to attend the reading program and to recite the Lord's Prayer, but that when the amendment was made he was excused at the request of his mother from further attendance.

The petitioners, in contending that the mandatory rule contravenes their freedom of religion under the first and fourteenth amendments in that it violates the principle of separation between church and state,*fn1 claim that the enforcement of the rule "threatens their religious liberty" in one way or another; that the rule "subjects their freedom of conscience to the rule of the majority"; and that the rule, by equating moral and spiritual values with religious values has thereby rendered their beliefs and ideals "sinister, alien and suspect" which tends to promote "doubt and question of their morality, good citizenship and good faith."

It is further claimed that the amendment excusing the student from participating in or attending the opening program "in no wise negates or mitigates the violation and infringement of their constitutional rights"; that the exclusion of the student has caused him to lose caste, to be regarded with aversion, and to be subjected to reproach and insult; and that the practice "tends to destroy the equality of the pupils" and place him in a disadvantageous position with respect to other pupils.

In conclusion, the petitioners state that although they have requested a cessation of the practice, the use of the rule has not ceased, but has been continued, and that they are thereby harmed.

The Board demurred to the petition on the ground that it did not state a good cause of action for which relief could be granted by way of mandamus. The lower court sustained the demurrer and dismissed the petition without leave to amend. In its memorandum opinion, the court stated two reasons for the action taken. The ultimate decision was based on the theory that the Board, in requiring that the Holy Bible be read or the Lord's Prayer be recited each school day as a part of the opening exercises, with a proviso that objecting students could be excused, was acting in the exercise of discretionary power that the issuance of a writ of mandamus could not stay. But prior to that, the court had found that the facts alleged in the petition for the writ did not "spell out any violation" of the constitutional rights of the petitioners.

Arguments in this case were heard twice. The initial argument was heard by five of the seven judges of this Court on both questions presented by the appeal: (i) whether mandamus is a proper action in which to test the constitutionality of the school board rule; and (ii) whether the provisions of the regulation under attack violate a constitutional right of the petitioners. The reargument was heard by seven judges, one of whom was substituting for Judge Sybert, and in the order directing reargument, we limited the reargument to the constitutional questions raised by the petition. We were then of the opinion and we now hold that where the performance of a duty prescribed by law depends on whether the statute or

regulation is constitutional or invalid, there is no reason why the question may not be determined on a petition for a writ of mandamus under such circumstances as are present in this case. Welch v. Swasey, 79 N. E. 745(Mass. 1907); 38 Corpus Juris, Mandamus, § 681 b (1); 16 C.J.S., Constitutional Law, § 95. See also High's Extraordinary Legal Remedies (3rd ed.), § 332 b, p. 325, where, in citing State v. District Board, 76 Wis. 177(1890), it is said that "[m]andamus will lie against a board intrusted with the management of public schools to compel them to discontinue the reading of the Bible in such schools." Moreover, there are a number of decisions in this state where the courts without challenge as to the propriety thereof have proceeded to determine a constitutional question preliminary to the grant or refusal of a writ of mandamus. See, for example, University v. Murray, 169 Md. 478, 182 A. 590(1936); Williams v. Zimmerman, 172 Md. 563, 192 A. 353(1937); Torcaso v. Watkins, 223 Md. 49, 162 A.2d 438(1960), reversed (on another ground and decided on merits), 367 U.S. 488(1961).

The principal question is whether the demurrer was properly sustained. The appellees contend preliminarily that the petitioners have not shown they have standing to challenge the rule and the practice under it in the schools of Baltimore City.

If the petitioners lacked standing to sue, this would require affirmance even though the rule and the practice were unconstitutional. Since we find them to be constitutional, we shall assume the petitioners had standing to sue and proceed to discuss the reasons for our views as to constitutionality.

The essential question thus presented is whether the daily Bible reading and Prayer recitation program, at which attendance is not compulsory, is a violation of the "establishment of religion" and "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment (as applied to the States through the due process clause of the Fourteenth) or of the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We think that neither constitutional provision is violated, for, as we see it, neither the First nor the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to stifle all rapport between religion and government.

"We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe."

Thus spoke Justice Douglas (at p. 313) in the majority opinion in Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306(1952).

The Supreme Court of the United States has not yet passed on either of the constitutional questions posed by this appeal. Yet, there are several decisions concerning the separation of Church and State which we think point the way and clearly indicate that a public school opening exercise such as this one -- where the time and money spent on it is inconsequential -- does not violate the religious clauses of the First Amendment or the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as would the teaching of a sectarian religion in a public school on school time and at public expense.

The first of the cases we have in mind is Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1(1947), where the Court, though it recognized that the clause against the establishment of religion was intended to erect "'a wall of separation between church and state,'" held that the reimbursement of parents for the cost of transporting their children ...


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