Religious Liberty Resources

EXPLORE THE HISTORY, LAW, AND THEORY OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

Conscience and Coercion

310 U.S. 586
Hughes Court

Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)

In a decision later reversed by West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, the Court decided that mandatory ceremonial displays of respect for the flag were constitutional because of their critical role in preserving national unity. In 1935, two Jehovah's Witnesses, schoolchildren Lillian and William Gobitis, were expelled from a Pennsylvania public school after they refused to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance and salute the flag. Their religion forbade the children to show reverence to a symbol, regarding such a display as idol worship. The Gobitises argued that the school's policy infringed upon their First Amendment right to religious liberty. In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled against the family, claiming that the secular purpose of the patriotic exercises outweighed any infringements upon religious practice. In the opinion delivered by Justice Frankfurter, the Court argued that mandated ceremonial respect for the flag was crucial to national unity and national security. If the children were allowed to refrain from this respect, their actions may sow seeds of doubt in their classmates.

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319 U.S. 624
Stone Court

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Court established that the government could not constitutionally mandate any ceremonial demonstrations of respect for the American flag, striking down its previous decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis. Children in a West Virginia public school were threatened with punishment for refusing to salute the flag during the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The children, who were Jehovah's Witnesses, had refused to comply with the compulsory school exercises because of their religious belief that these exercises were a form of idol worship. The Court ruled that the school's policy violated the children's First Amendment rights to religious liberty and freedom of speech. Their peaceful refusal was neither harmful nor disruptive to others, nor did it infringe upon anyone's rights. Although ceremonial respect for the flag was an important symbol of national unity, the children could not be mandated to partake in it.

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367 U.S. 488
Warren Court

Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)

The Court considered whether the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was violated by a Maryland requirement that a candidate for public office declare a belief in God to be eligible for the position. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that the requirement violated the Establishment Clause by giving preference to candidates who believed in God and were willing to state their beliefs, over other candidates. In this, Maryland effectively aided religions involving a belief in God at the expense of religions or beliefs that do not, a position that a state is expressly prohibited from taking.

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374 U.S. 203
Warren Court

School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (1963)

In School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp the Supreme Court provided its first explicit test for identifying violations of the Establishment Clause. This test captured and formalized the reasoning of prior decisions like Engel v. Vitale. A Pennsylvania state law required public schools to host a reading of the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each school day. No commentary was made on the readings. Participation was not required of students, but the exercises were mandated to take place. Edward Schempp sued the Abington school district, contending that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court ruled in favor of Schempp, in the process expressing a new constitutionality test. A law passes this test if its purpose and primary effects are secular. A law that is intended to advance or inhibit religion, or whose primary effects advance or inhibit religion, is unconstitutional. The Court argued that the Establishment Clause did not exist solely to prevent government preference for one religion over another, but also to prevent the promotion of religion in general. This test anticipated the more elaborate “Lemon test” that would later emerge from Lemon v. Kurtzman.

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393 U.S. 440
Warren Court

Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church (1969)

Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church explicitly established the precedent that civil courts had no authority to decide church doctrine, even when that doctrine is relevant to property disputes between religious groups. Two Presbyterian churches in Savannah, Georgia had doctrinal disagreement with the national Presbyterian Church and withdrew from its membership. In response, the national church took over the Savannah properties that the local churches held the titles for. The two local churches successfully sued the Church for trespass on the claim that it no longer represented their religious values. The national church claimed that the Georgia government had no constitutional power to determine if a church had departed from its tenets. The Supreme Court agreed and reversed the Georgia court's decision on the grounds that it had violated the First Amendment by incorporating religious interpretation into its decision. As noted in Abington v. Schempp, the law must act with a solely secular purpose in mind.

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406 U.S. 205
Burger Court

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)

The Court examined whether the state of Wisconsin’s requirement that all parents send their children to school at least until age 16 violated the First Amendment by criminalizing the conduct of parents who refused to send their children to school for religious reasons. In their unanimous decision, the Court ruled that Amish adolescents could be exempt from the state law requiring school attendance for all 14 to 16-year-olds, because their religion required living apart from the world and worldly influence. The state’s interest in having students attend 2 additional years of school did not outweigh the individual’s right to free exercise of religious belief.

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