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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Individualist Court: Naked Public School, Clothed Public Square


The Naked Public Square (Neuhaus 1984) argued that in recent decades the Supreme Court has actively sought to remove religion from American public life. Over twenty-five years after the publication of this book, does Neuhaus’ theory still stand? I examine this question in the context of public schools, because attendance at public schools is mostly compulsory, and thus the way children and their beliefs are treated becomes a matter of serious cultural consequence, not merely academic discussion. The existing research on this topic focuses on two polemic understandings of Supreme Court activity, separationist and accommodationist, neither of which are precise enough to wholly describe the Court’s decisions over the past quarter century. Hence, I instead argue that the Court is best characterized as individualist – that is, Court decisions since the mid-1980s reflect a respect for the ability of the individual to practice religion unhindered in public schools, as well as a respect for the individual to resist coercive religious elements in public schools. Clothed or bare, the individual retains the right to choose or renounce religion in public schools.

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