On Tuesday, July 17, 2012, the Supreme Court of Ohio launched an expanded news program – Court News Ohio – that features stories about the Ohio judicial system. This archived page on the Supreme Court’s website only displays news stories that occurred before that date. News stories that occurred on July 17 and thereafter can be found at www.courtnewsohio.gov.

April 1, 2009
Notre Dame Professor Discusses Seminal Church-State Case in Supreme Court Lecture

A Notre Dame historian on Wednesday told the surprising story of how an evangelical Calvinist in 1873 persuaded the Supreme Court of Ohio to allow the removal of the Bible from Cincinnati classrooms.

Professor Linda Przybyszewski recounted the tale of the Cincinnati Bible War in “A Forum on the Law” before a full Courtroom of the Supreme Court at the Ohio Judicial Center. The case helped frame the national debate about church/state relations well into the 20th Century. The event was hosted by the U.S. Supreme Court Historical Society and the Ohio Supreme Court.

Amid the increasing diversity and pluralism of the post-Civil War era, the Cincinnati public schools were faced with a growing Catholic population unhappy that their children were instructed with the protestant version of the Bible. The school board’s solution to remove all bibles from the classroom erupted into a raging national controversy over the relationship between religion and government. In 1873, the Ohio Supreme Court put an end to the Cincinnati Bible War, upholding the board’s decision to end Bible reading in its schools.

“Eventually, the pattern set by the Ohio Supreme Court became the law of the land, and it all started in Cincinnati,” Przybyszewski said.

The controversy had convulsed the city, riveted the eyes of the nation, provoked a petition drive, and ultimately the court case. Now, the Bible had lost. Or had it? Przybyszewski argues this is a misunderstood chapter in the religious, political and legal history of the nation.

The decision pointed to the Ohio Constitution, but then offered its own Bible lesson: compulsory Bible reading violated Christ’s Golden Rule. It was an unusual legal reasoning, but a powerful argument in a land dotted with church steeples.

“Ultimately the argument that prevailed was not that America is a secular nation, but rather the contrary,” she said. “Religious liberty and the idea of a Christian nation are not at odds but in fact as one,” she said.

Attorney Stanley Matthews was the unlikely advocate who argued the case for the school board and defended religious liberty in the name of Christianity. His own inspiration lay decades in the past when scarlet fever raged in Ohio.

Matthews started life as a relatively theologically liberal Unitarian but converted to the strict conservative determinism of Calvinism and became an evangelist after he and his wife lost four of their six children in the span of a week to scarlet fever.

Matthews, who went on to become a Justice on the United States Supreme Court (May 17, 1881–March 22, 1889), believed that the compulsory power of the state could not be used to persuade children of the truth of Christianity because salvation can come only through the grace of God.

His 400 page brief before the Supreme Court argued passionately and persuasively that Christianity itself supported the decision of the Cincinnati school board (upheld by the intermediate appellate court) to remove the bible from the public schools. The brief ended with an evangelic longing for the Second Coming of Christ.

“You just don’t hear lawyers talk like that anymore,” Przybyszewski joked. “He sounded more like a preacher at the pulpit than a lawyer at the bar, and yet he would win his case,”

Through the clouds of time, many have misunderstood the Bible War as a victory for secularism or a loss for Christianity, Przybyszewski said. In fact, she said, it was neither.

The program will be on cable television statewide. Visit www.ohiochannel.org for future broadcast dates and times and availability in your area.

For more information, please visit www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/Biblewar.

A display about this interesting chapter in Ohio history can be seen at the Supreme Court of Ohio Visitor Education Center, which is free and open to the public 8-5, Monday through Friday at 65 South Front Street, Columbus. Teachers or others interested in scheduling a group visit, please call 614.387.9223 or visit: http://www.ohiojudicialcenter.gov/visitor_ed_center.asp.