Religious Liberty Resources

EXPLORE THE HISTORY, LAW, AND THEORY OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

Establishment

330 US 1 (1947)
Vinson Court

Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

The Court examined whether a New Jersey law allowing reimbursements to parents who sent their children on buses operated by the public transportation system to public and private schools, including parochial Catholic schools, was indirect aid to religion and thus a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the law was constitutional, because the transportation reimbursements were provided to all students regardless of religion. Also, the reimbursements were made directly to parents and not to any religious institution. This case also applied the Establishment Clause to the actions of state governments.

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333 U.S. 203
Vinson Court

McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)

McCollum v. Board of Education was the first case to strike down state support for religious education, as based upon the principle established in Everson v. Board of Education. Vashti McCollum sued her son's school board because it had designated time during the school day for voluntary education by private religious groups. The Supreme Court, citing the Establishment Clause and Everson v. Board of Education, ruled that it was unconstitutional for public, taxpayer-funded schools to use class time for religious education classes. It also held that the school district had aided religious groups by releasing students from the state's compulsive secular education to attend the religious education classes.

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343 U.S. 306
Vinson Court

Zorach v. Clauson (1952)

Zorach v. Clauson was the first clear assertion by the Supreme Court that the government should accommodate the religious beliefs of its citizens. New York City had begun a program in which public school students could be released from the classroom at specific times to attend religious education outside of school. Parents sued the school board, claiming that, as in McCollum v. Board of Education, the district had violated the Establishment Clause by sanctioning religious instruction. The Court ruled that the district had acted constitutionally since it had not spent any taxpayer money on religious activity, nor coerced students to attend it; religious instruction had occurred strictly outside of the public classroom and was completely voluntary. In the majority's opinion, it would be unconstitutional and hostile to religion to not recognize and accommodate religious groups.

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366 U.S. 420
Warren Court

McGowan v. Maryland (1961)

In McGowan v. Maryland, the Supreme Court established the precedent that laws with religious origins are constitutional provided that they serve a secular purpose. State laws in Maryland allowed only certain items to be sold on Sundays. Employees of a department store were arrested and fined after violating these "blue laws" by selling prohibited merchandise on a Sunday. These employees objected that Maryland's blue laws violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Though the Court acknowledged that these laws had originally had a religious purpose, it ruled that over time these statutes had come to emphasize secular considerations. Sunday was a day of rest and recreation in the secular sense as well as the religious one - therefore, blue laws neither aided nor hindered religion.

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370 US 421
Warren Court

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Engel v. Vitale was the first Supreme Court case to address state-sponsored, teacher-led prayer within public schools. The Court established that school-directed prayer within public schools, even that which was nondenominational and voluntary, was unconstitutional. Officials in New York State had authorized public school officials to lead a recitation of a voluntary, state-composed, nondenominational prayer at the beginning of each school day. A group of parents led by Steven Engel sued the president of the school board for a violation of First Amendment rights under the Establishment Clause. In a 6-1 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Engel. Though the State of New York had made the daily prayer voluntary, the Court argued, by encouraging its recitation it was still actively sponsoring a particular religious practice.

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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. 97
Warren Court

Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)

Epperson v. Arkansas was the first Supreme Court case to protect the teaching of evolution from state statutes. Decided only a few years after the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial," it established the precedent that a state's right to control its educational curriculum did not permit it to promote religious principles through that curriculum. In 1928, Arkansas passed a statute prohibiting public schools from teaching evolution or using textbooks that featured the theory. Years later, on the recommendation of its biology teachers, a Little Rock high school added evolutionary theory to its curriculum. A teacher there, legally prohibited from teaching evolution, filed suit against the state on the claim that the law violated the Establishment Clause, as well as her right to free speech. Using the test formalized in School District of Abington Township, PA v. Schempp, the Court ruled unanimously that the Arkansas law was unconstitutional because its primary intent and effect was to protect a religious view. The law was based solely upon religious, not secular, considerations. Though the state had a right to prescribe a curriculum, it could not establish an official religious view by prohibiting the teaching of contrary scientific theories.

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393 U.S. 440
Warren Court

Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church (1969)

Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church explicitly determined that civil courts had no authority to decide church doctrine, even while deciding 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 local church properties. 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.

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403 U.S. 602
Burger Court

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)

The Court considered whether a Pennsylvania law reimbursing religious schools with state funds for textbooks and teacher salaries for non-public, non-secular schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In an 8-0 decision, the Court set out a three-pronged test for the constitutionality of a statute, by which a statute is constitutional if: (1) it has a primarily secular purpose; (2) its principal effect neither aids nor inhibits religion; and (3) government and religion are not excessively entangled. On this basis, the Court struck down the Pennsylvania law as in violation of the Establishment Clause, finding that the statute constituted an excessive government entanglement with religion.

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Larson v. Valente (1982)
456 U.S. 228
Burger Court

Larson v. Valente (1982)

The Court considered the constitutionality of a Minnesota law requiring religious and nonreligious organizations that rely on solicitations for at least 50 percent of their budgets to file extensive reports to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The Court ruled that the law is unconstitutional because it violates the Establishment Clause by favoring denominations. The law also did not serve a compelling government interest and therefore failed the Lemon test.

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Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)
482 U.S. 578
Rehnquist Court

Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)

The Court examined whether a Louisiana law that forbade the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools unless accompanied by instruction in “creation science” violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 7-2 decision, the Court held that the Louisiana statute violated the Establishment Clause, because it failed all parts of the 3-pronged test from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), in that it: (prong 1) lacked a clear secular purpose, (prong 2) endorsed religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind, and (prong 3) entangled the interests of church and state by seeking “to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose.”

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County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989)
492 U.S. 573
Rehnquist Court

County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989)

The Court looked at whether Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, violated the Establishment clause by the county’s public holiday display of a Christmas nativity scene (creche) and the city’s display of an 18-foot-tall Chanukah menorah next to a 45-foot decorated Christmas tree. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the creche display was unconstitutional, but the menorah was permissible. The creche was displayed alone in the courthouse and included an angel holding a banner that said “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (Latin for “Glory to God in the highest”). The Court said that by including that message and displaying the creche with nothing around it to detract from this religious message, the county was not just celebrating Christmas as a national holiday—which in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) was ruled permissible despite the holiday’s religious origins—but also was “endorsing a patently Christian message: Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ,” and thus violated the Establishment Clause. The city’s menorah and decorated Christmas tree were displayed just outside the City-County building, with a sign at the foot of the tree with the mayor’s name and text declaring the city’s “salute to liberty.” The Court held that by including the menorah with the tree and the sign saluting liberty, “the city conveyed a message of pluralism and freedom of belief” and thus did not violate the Establishment Clause.

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