The First Amendment’s free exercise clause allows a person to hold whatever religious beliefs he or she wants, and to exercise that belief by attending religious services, praying in public or in private, proselytizing or wearing religious clothing, such as yarmulkes or headscarves. Also included in the free exercise clause is the right not to believe in any religion, and the right not to participate in religious activities. Second, the establishment clause prevents the government from creating a church, endorsing religion in general, or favoring one set of religious beliefs over another.
The First Amendment is ratified when Virginia becomes the 11th state to approve the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The amendment, drafted primarily by James Madison, guarantees basic freedoms for citizens: freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.
In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, President Thomas Jefferson writes that the First Amendment has built “a wall of separation between Church and State” to counter church fears that the U.S. government would establish a state religion.
Rep. James Blaine (R., Maine) proposes an amendment to the Constitution that builds upon the First Amendment and explicitly forbids the use of public funds to support religious activities, including parochial schools. Although the amendment fails in Congress, legislation will later pass requiring states to amend their constitutions to include some version of the Blaine Amendment as a condition of statehood. Other states voluntarily add similar amendments to their constitutions.
In Reynolds v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Utah law outlawing polygamy. The court rules that the First Amendment allows some regulation of religious practices, such as polygamy. In making this ruling, the court distinguishes between religious belief, which may not be restricted, and religious conduct, which may be.
In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court invalidates an Oregon law that requires parents to send their children to public schools. The Court rules that parents have the constitutional right, under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, to direct their children’s educational as well as moral development, which includes sending their children to a school of their choice – even a private religious one.
In Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Louisiana law permitting state funds to be used by both public and private schools, including religious schools, to buy books. The Court finds that because it is the schoolchildren, and not the schools, who benefit from the law, the law does not establish religion and is constitutional.
In Cantwell v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that two Jehovah Witnesses’ rights of free speech and free exercise of religion were violated when they were arrested for proselytizing in a Catholic neighborhood. The Court says the solicitation law, which allows a state official to refuse a permit based on religious grounds, is unconstitutional. The Court also overturns a breach of peace conviction, saying the pair’s message was protected religious speech. The case is the first to extend the free exercise of religion clause to the states and to establish the ‘time, manner and place’ rule, which says the state can regulate the free exercise right to ensure it is practiced in a reasonable time, manner and place.
In Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Pennsylvania flag-salute law after a challenge by a Jehovah’s Witness family whose two children were expelled for refusing to salute the flag. They believe the salute is forbidden by biblical commands. The Court says the flag is a symbol of national unity, which is the “basis of national security.”
In Everson v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a state law that reimburses parents for the transportation costs of sending their children to private schools, including parochial schools. As in Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education, the Court rules that the law does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment because students and parents benefit, not the schools or the religious institutions.
In Illinois, the Champaign Council on Religious Education, composed of Jewish, Catholic and Protestant groups, offers voluntary religious instruction to students in local public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court rules in McCollum v. Board of Education District that such use of school buildings is unconstitutional because it is “a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups and to spread the faith,” and therefore violated the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment.
In Zorach v. Clauson, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that permitting public school students to leave campus during the day for privately taught religious instruction does not violate the establishment clause. Such “release time” programs do not endorse religion, they accommodate it, and thus strike the proper balance between the free exercise clause and the establishment clause, the Court finds. The Court distinguishes between the policy struck down in McCollum v. Board of Education in which school space was used, and this case, in which schools merely adjust their schedules.
New York State’s Board of Regents drafted a nondenominational prayer for students to recite voluntarily at the beginning of each school day: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country.”
Ruling in Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court rejects the notion that the prayer’s lack of reference to any specific religion exempts it from the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing a religion. Any state-sanctioned prayer, the Court argues, is an unconstitutional recognition of religion.
In Abington School District v. Schempp, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a Pennsylvania law violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment by requiring schoolchildren to begin the day by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The Court rules that even though children may be exempt from recitation at a parent’s request, the public school nevertheless has endorsed religion. The Court notes, however, that the prohibition on prayer is not a ban on secular instruction in religion, an area of study that can enhance a student’s education.
In Sherbert v. Verner, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is a violation of the free exercise clause to deny unemployment benefits to a Seventh-day Adventist who was fired for refusing to work on Saturday, her Sabbath, and then rejected the offer of a new job that would have required the same. By making the employee choose between unemployment benefits and observing her faith, the Court finds that the state infringed upon the employee’s free exercise of religion.
In Epperson v. Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a state law that forbids public school teachers from presenting lessons on evolution. The Court rules that the law results from the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, who see evolutionary theories as contradictory to the biblical account of creation. The use of state power to ban the teaching of material objectionable to a particular sect amounts to an unconstitutional establishment of religion, the Court holds.
In Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that New York City does not violate the establishment clause by exempting houses of worship from property taxes. The benefit to churches is the same as that received by nonprofit organizations and quasi-public corporations, including hospitals, libraries, and historical and patriotic groups, the Court says. The exemption policy recognizes such groups as “beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life,” the Court says.
In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates Pennsylvania and Rhode Island laws that provide financial assistance to private and parochial schools. Pennsylvania reimburses schools for teacher salaries, textbooks and other instructional material in secular subjects. Rhode Island supplements teacher salaries. The Court outlines what will be known as the “Lemon test” to determine violation of the establishment clause, asking: Is the law’s purpose nonsecular? Does it have the primary effect of promoting a set of religious beliefs? Does it have “excessive government entanglement” with religion?
In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a state law requiring students to attend school until age 16 violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. In a challenge by three Amish families whose faith led them to withdraw their children from school after the eighth grade, the Court finds that the state interest in universal education is secondary to the Amish interest in raising children in the manner dictated by their religion.
In Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a New York law that gives facility-maintenance grants to non-public schools with a high concentration of low-income students, as well as tuition reimbursement and tax credits to low-income students at such schools. The Court finds that the law has the “primary effect” of promoting religion, and that it entangles government and religion by helping religious schools stay in business and encouraging parents to send their children to them.
In Stone v. Graham, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a Kentucky law requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted in every public school classroom. The Court finds that the law fails the first part of the test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, violating the establishment clause. The requirement has “no secular legislative purpose” and is “plainly religious in nature,” the decision says.
In Mueller v. Allen, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Minnesota law that offers a tax credit to families for their children’s education expenses, including tuition, textbooks and transportation. Since many of the families were taking the tax credit for expenses related to religious education, advocates challenged the law as a violation of the First Amendment’s mandate to separate church and state. The Court says that because the credit is made available to any family for educational expenses and not specifically targeted to those families sending their children to private, religious schools, there is no constitutional violation.
In Marsh v. Chambers, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is not an establishment of religion for the Nebraska Legislature to open its sessions with a prayer by a chaplain who is paid from public funds. Because the practice of offering such prayers can be traced to the Continental Congress and to the First Congress, which framed the Bill of Rights, the Court finds that the purpose of the prayer is not to promote religion but to communicate certain shared values.
In Lynch v. Donnelly, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a city’s Christmas display, which includes a nativity scene, does not violate the establishment clause because it also features non-religious decorations, such as a Santa Claus house. The Court concludes that the purpose of the display in Pawtucket, R.I., is secular, to celebrate the holiday generally and to depict its historical roots. The symbols pose no danger of establishing a state church, the Court finds.
Congress passes the Equal Access Act to end “perceived widespread discrimination” against religion in public schools. The law has three basic requirements: nondiscrimination against religious student groups (i.e., those groups must be treated just like any other student group); protection of student-initiated meetings (i.e., those that are started and led by students, not by the school or teachers); and local control (i.e., local school administrators are free to determine the appropriate discipline when students express religious beliefs at school).
In Wallace v. Jaffree, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down an Alabama statute that provides for a “moment of silence” for “meditation or voluntary prayer” in public schools. The Court rules that a neutral moment of silence could be constitutional, but that by including “voluntary prayer,” the law reveals a religious purpose, making it an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
In Aguilar v. Felton, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that a New York City program that uses federal funds to pay the salaries of public school teachers who teach low-income parochial school students with special needs violates the establishment clause. Although the program is not intended to promote religion, the Court finds that it results in the “excessive entanglement” of church and state and, therefore, is unconstitutional.
In Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a Louisiana law requiring that “creation science” be taught whenever evolution theory is taught and vice versa. The Court rules that the purpose of the law is religious, not secular: “The Louisiana Creationism Act advances a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety.”
In Bowen v. Kendrick, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that federal grants may benefit religious groups as part of the Adolescent Family Life Act. The act’s purpose – to discourage premarital sex among teenagers – is a secular one. Furthermore, the act requires that potential recipients reveal the services they intend to provide and how they would provide them. That requirement enables the government to protect against the misuse of grants. Such oversight, however, does not create an “excessive entanglement” of church and state, the Court concludes.
In County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a nativity scene inside the courthouse and a menorah display outside a public building. The Court holds that the nativity scene is a county endorsement of Christian orthodoxy and is therefore an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The menorah display, however, includes a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty. Thus, it does not endorse a faith but merely recognizes that Christmas and Hanukkah are part of the winter holiday season. The Court says the display is constitutional.
In Employment Division, Oregon Department of Human Resources v. Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court rules against two American Indians fired from their jobs at a private drug rehabilitation organization because they used the illegal hallucinogenic drug peyote in religious rituals. The State of Oregon denied their unemployment claims because they were fired for work-related “misconduct.” The Court says that it has never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him or her from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct the government is free to regulate.
In Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Equal Access Act is constitutional. The 1984 federal law bars a school from discriminating against any student group because its religious, philosophical or political viewpoint.
In Lee v. Weisman, the U.S. Supreme Court finds unconstitutional a school district practice of inviting clergy to lead prayers at school graduations. Because attendance at the graduation ceremony is compulsory and because the “government is endorsing or promoting religion,” the Court holds that the district policy in Providence, R.I., violates the establishment clause.
In Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that a public school district may provide a sign-language interpreter to a deaf student at a parochial school in the district. The parents had sued, contending that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act required the district to provide an interpreter and that the establishment clause did not ban such action. The court holds that because the benefit is a neutral one – in that it benefits the student, not the school or the religion – the policy does not violate the establishment clause.
Congress passes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in response to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, that rejected a longstanding principle that the government had to show a “compelling state interest” to interfere with religious practices. Two American Indians were fired as drug rehabilitation counselors and denied jobless benefits because they had ingested peyote, an illegal hallucinogenic drug, as part of their religious ceremonies. Under the new act, the government must follow strict standards before it can restrict the free exercise of religion.
In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a university policy against financing a Christian student newspaper. The university argued that as a public institution, it could not support an activity that “primarily promotes or manifests a particular belief in or about a deity or an ultimate reality.” To do so, the school said, would violate the establishment clause. However, the Court finds that once a public university commits to financing some student groups with certain viewpoints, it must give other groups the same opportunity to be heard.
At the direction of President Bill Clinton, Education Secretary Richard Riley issues federal guidelines on religious expression in public schools. The rules are meant to clarify existing laws and principles.
In Agostini v. Felton, the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the New York City policies put in place since the Aguilar v. Felton ruling and concludes that it is not “excessive entanglement” with religion for public school teachers to provide tutoring at parochial schools. Noting its recent decision in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, allowing for a publicly financed sign-language interpreter, the Court says there is no difference between an interpreter and a tutor. Entanglements between church and state do not necessarily have a positive or negative effect on religion, the Court finds.
In Boerne v. Flores, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress passed the law in response to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Employment Division v. Smith, that abandoned the “compelling interest” principle in restricting religious practices. The law reinstated that principle, saying that government could not enforce laws that “substantially burden” religious observance without showing a “compelling interest” and without using the “least restrictive means available.” In Boerne, the Court asserts its judicial power and says Congress overstepped its authority.
President Bill Clinton issues federal guidelines for religious expression in the workplace. Drawn up by a group of religious organizations, the rules address issues such as accommodating employees’ religious observances, discrimination, religious discussions and religious expression.
In 1993, the State of Wisconsin passed a school voucher law that offered low-income families up to $5,000 to attend any nonreligious school – public or private – in the city of Milwaukee. Over time, the program was expanded to include religious schools as well. That triggered a lawsuit in which, in 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the school-voucher plan did not violate the First Amendment’s church-state separation clause. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, allowing the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling to stand.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signs the first of several education measures that allow parents of students in “failing schools” to use state vouchers to pay for the education of their children in another school, if it has space. Students can choose a public, private, religious or nonreligious school.
Opponents challenge the plan as a violation of the constitutional concept of separation of church and state and provisions in the Florida Constitution that forbid public money from going to support any private school. In 2004, a midlevel state appellate court will decide that the plan violates the state constitution.
In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a Santa Fe school policy of permitting students to lead prayers before football games – and broadcasting them over the stadium’s public address system – violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Similar to the situation in Lee v. Weisman, in which a school district invited clergy to deliver prayers before graduation, the Santa Fe practice amounts to students delivering a religious message on behalf of school officials, the Court finds.
In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that religious schools may participate in a voucher program in Cleveland in which the state provides financial assistance to parents who wish to send their children to a private school. The Court rules that the voucher proposal does not violate the establishment clause in the First Amendment because it has a neutral purpose – greater school choice for low-income families – and the vouchers go to the students’ parents, not to the schools, preventing “excessive entanglement.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in Locke v. Davey, finds that Washington State may exclude theology students from receiving state-financed scholarships if they are pursuing a degree in devotional theology. Washington’s Constitution prohibits the financing of religious education, and a 1969 state code applies the prohibition to college financial aid. Joshua Davey filed suit, saying that the ban on financing religious instruction violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
In Van Orden v. Perry, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol does not violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause barring the government from passing laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The Court refers to the nation’s tradition of recognizing the commandments’ historical meaning.
In McCreary County v. ACLU, copies of the Ten Commandments were displayed in the courthouses and schools of two Kentucky counties. The Court finds in this case that the displays violated the establishment clause because their purpose was to advance religion.
The Supreme Court rules, 5-4, that the Affordable Care Act violates a federal law protecting religious freedom by requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception. The coverage was challenged by two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, whose owners said they try to run their businesses based on Christian principles.
Justice Samuel Alito, in the majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, stresses that the Court had decided only that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to “closely held” for-profit corporations run on religious principles. The Court rejects the government’s argument that neither the owners nor the corporations could bring a religious-freedom claim. “Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby … protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies,” Alito writes. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion criticizes the ruling as a radical overhaul of corporate rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules that the state of Arkansas cannot bar a Muslim prisoner from growing a beard in accordance with his religion. In Holt v. Hobbs, the Court says the state prison regulations violated the religious liberty rights of the inmates. The prisoner, Gregory Holt, who had filed a handwritten petition to the Court, sought to grow a half-inch beard. The state said its policy addressed security concerns because inmates could hide weapons in their beards. The Court points out that more than 40 state prison systems and the federal system allow short beards and that it was difficult to take seriously the state’s security concern.
A Muslim inmate, Domineque Ray, is executed in Alabama after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a stay of execution granted by an appeals court. Ray had challenged the prison’s refusal to allow his imam to be with him in the execution chamber. Prison officials allow only their own Christian chaplain inside the execution chamber, saying it would be a security risk to let someone who wasn’t a state employee inside. The justices said Ray waited too long to contest the decision. The dissent said: “The clearest command of the Establishment Clause” is that “one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.”
The U.S. Supreme Court halts the execution of a Texas inmate, Patrick Murphy, because he was not allowed to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser in the execution chamber. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that the state’s policy of allowing only Christian and Muslim chaplains in the execution chamber amounted to unconstitutional religious discrimination. Inmates of other religious denominations may have the religious advisers present only in the viewing room under state policy.
In a separation of church and state case, the U.S. Supreme Court decides, 7-2, that a 40-foot World War I memorial cross can stay on public land at an intersection in Maryland. Justice Samuel Alito writes in the majority opinion in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, that the cross “has become a prominent community landmark” and that it has essentially become secular. The decision reverses a lower-court ruling that said the cross violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others, because it is on public land and taxpayers’ money maintains it.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejects a California church’s attempt to overturn the state’s coronavirus restrictions on in-person religious services. The Court upholds the state’s right to impose limits on congregations to slow the spread of Covid-19. “Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote in the majority opinion for South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students at private schools. The decision is the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that the free exercise of religion bars the government from treating religious groups differently from secular ones. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. “A state need not subsidize private education,” Roberts wrote. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”