Religious Liberty Resources

EXPLORE THE HISTORY, LAW, AND THEORY OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

Religion in Schools

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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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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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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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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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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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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