Religious Liberty Resources

EXPLORE THE HISTORY, LAW, AND THEORY OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

Law

Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC (2012)
565 U.S. 171
Roberts Court

Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC (2012)

The Supreme Court considered a case involving a teacher with ministerial capacities at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School. The teacher, Cheryl Perich, was diagnosed with narcolepsy and was on medical leave of absence for several months. When she returned, the school fired her, and Perich claimed that she was wrongfully terminated under the Disabilities Act. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Hosanna-Tabor, citing ministerial exception protections for religious groups under the First Amendment. The Court argues that Perich is a minister and that the ministerial exception protects religious groups’ employment decisions regardless of whether or not decisions have a religious purpose.

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Employment Division v. Smith (1990)
494 U.S. 872
Rehnquist Court

Employment Division v. Smith (1990)

The Court examined whether the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment allowed the state of Oregon to deny unemployment benefits to someone fired from a job for smoking peyote as part of a religious ceremony. Peyote is a controlled substance under Oregon law, and its possession is a criminal offense. The Court first determined whether such prohibition is constitutional and found that it is constitutional, because the law is “valid and neutral,” applying to everyone and not specifically aimed at a physical act engaged in for a religious reason. In a 6-3 decision, the Court then held that, because ingestion of peyote was prohibited under Oregon law, and because that prohibition is constitutional, Oregon did not violate the Free Exercise Clause in denying persons unemployment compensation when their dismissal results from use of the drug.

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98 U.S. 145
Waite Court

Reynolds v. United States (1878)

The Court examined whether the federal anti-bigamy statute violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, because plural marriage is part of religious practice. It unanimously upheld the federal law banning polygamy, noting that the Free Exercise Clause forbids government from regulating belief, but does allow government to punish activity judged to be criminal, regardless of an activity’s basis in religious belief.

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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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310 U.S. 296
Hughes Court

Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)

In Cantwell v. Connecticut, the Court applied the Free Exercise Clause to state and local government for the first time. Prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, constitutional rights, such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights, applied only to the federal government. In the Cantwell decision, the Free Exercise clause from the First Amendment was “incorporated” into the Court’s understanding of the protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment against both federal and state authority.

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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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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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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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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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381 U.S. 479
Warren Court

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

The Court considered the constitutionality of a Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraceptives for married couples. Estelle Griswold helped open a birth control clinic in New Haven and was arrested for violating the Connecticut law. She appealed her case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the law violated the Constitution. The Court argued that, taken together, the First, Third, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments imply a right to privacy in marriage. The Court reasoned that the Constitution protects rights not explicitly outlined in the Bill of Rights.

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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 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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403 U.S. 602
Burger Court

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)

In this decision, the Supreme Court established a definitive test (the "Lemon test") to determine whether a statute violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Both Pennsylvania and Rhode Island had statutes in place that provided government aid to nonsecular, nonpublic schools in the form of salary supplements for teachers and (in Pennsylvania) reimbursement for textbooks and other teaching materials. These supplements were only provided to the teachers of nonreligious subjects. Taxpayers in both states sued in federal courts on the basis that the state governments were aiding an establishment of religion and violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court sided with the taxpayers. Although the state aid was strictly used for secular teaching, it still supported school systems that were "an integral part" of a religious mission. In an 8-1 decision, the Court expanded on its simpler test formulated in Abington v. Schempp. It 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. Using this test, the Court struck down the state laws as violations of the Establishment Clause, finding that the statutes constituted an excessive government entanglement with religion.

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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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435 U.S. 618
Burger Court

McDaniel v. Paty (1978)

The Court looked at whether a Tennessee law that barred members of the clergy from serving in public office violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court ruled unanimously that the statute violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, because it made the ability to exercise civil rights conditional on the surrender of religious rights.

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

Larson v. Valente (1982)

In Larson v. Valente, the Court determined that the government could not "politicize religion" by discriminating against religious organizations that largely solicited from nonmembers. During the 1960s, Minnesota passed a law that required charitable organizations that solicit money to register with the state and provide extensive annual reports on their practices. If the Minnesota Department of Commerce found that an organization had operated in a fraudulent way, registration may be revoked. Religious organizations were exempt from this act until 1978, when it was amended to include religious organizations that received more than fifty percent of funding from soliciting nonmembers. Shortly after the change, the Department of Commerce notified the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity that it must register with the state. Members of the church claimed that the 1978 provision violated the Establishment Clause by discriminating against certain religious groups' free exercise of religion. In a 5-4 decision, the Court sided with the plaintiffs, arguing that the fifty percent rule discriminated between denominations and gave preference to some over others. Minnesota's provision unduly burdened Unity Church and other religious groups with extensive reporting on their practices. In relation to the Lemon test, the state had violated the requirement that forbid excessive government entanglement in religious affairs. Although the act had a legitimate secular purpose (preventing fraud), it had not been applied in an even-handed manner, but used an arbitrary requirement to discriminate between denominations.

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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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Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah (1993)
508 U.S. 520
Rehnquist Court

Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah (1993)

The Court considered whether ordinances passed by the city of Hialeah, Florida, banning animal sacrifice violated the Free Exercise Clause. The texts of these laws and the way they operated showed that they were not neutral and generally applicable, but instead targeted the Santeria religion, in which animal sacrifice is an important ritual. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that because the ordinances were designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices, they violated the Free Exercise Clause.

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Capitol Square Review and Advisory Bd. v. Pinette (1995)
515 U.S. 753
Rehnquist Court

Capitol Square Review and Advisory Bd. v. Pinette (1995)

The Court considered whether the Advisory Board of Columbus, Ohio, violated the free speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan when it used the Establishment Clause to deny them permission to erect an unattended cross on Capitol Square (the state-house square) during the Christmas season. Under Ohio law, Capitol Square is a forum for discussion of public questions and for public activities, and so is a space that is open to all on equal terms. In a 7-2 decision, the Court held that the denial of permission did violate the Ku Klux Klan’s free speech rights. In the opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the display of the cross “was private religious speech that is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression” and that, because Capitol Square is a traditional public forum, “the Board could regulate the content of the Klan’s expression there only if such a restriction is necessary, and narrowly drawn, to serve a compelling state interest.”

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City of Boerne v. Flores (1997)
521 U.S. 507
Rehnquist Court

City of Boerne v. Flores (1997)

The Supreme Court considered whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 exempts the Archbishop of San Antonio’s diocese from the city of Boerne’s local ordinance forbidding new construction. The Court ruled that Congress exceeded its 14th Amendment powers by determining the particular manner in which local ordinances enforce RFRA. Additionally, there was no evidence that Boerne’s local ordinance discriminated against the Catholic Church.

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Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
539 U.S. 558
Rehnquist Court

Lawrence v. Texas (2003)

The Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that criminalized sexual acts between same-sex couples. The Court reasoned that the law violated the Due Process Clause, which protects the right of two consenting adults to engage in sexual conduct, according to Kennedy. The Court reversed its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, which originally outlawed sodomy.

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545 U.S. 677
Rehnquist Court

Van Orden v. Perry (2005)

The Court examined whether the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment allows the display of a monument on the Texas State Capitol grounds that is inscribed with the Ten Commandments. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the Texas display of the monument falls on the permissible side of the constitutional line and so does not violate the Establishment Clause. The state placed the Ten Commandments monument next to the Texas State Capitol with 38 other monuments and markers representing different aspects of Texas’s political and legal history. In the Court’s opinion, Justice William Rehnquist noted that its religious message notwithstanding, the monument was presented in a context conveying a “secular moral message about proper standards of social conduct and a message about the historic relation between those standards and the law.” Because of its context, Justice Rehnquist wrote that the public visiting the grounds would tend to consider the religious aspect of the tablets’ message as part of that broader message about cultural heritage.

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563 U.S. 125
Roberts Court

Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011)

The Supreme Court ruled that Arizona taxpayers lacked standing in a case involving Arizona’s law that provided a tuition tax credit. Arizona taxpayers argued that the tuition tax credit violated the Establishment Clause, but in a 5-4 decision the Court ruled that they cannot claim that the tax credit is an expenditure, so the taxpayers lacked standing.

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