No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This statement sets the boundaries of governmental action.
Part of the Bill of RIghts that imposes a number of restrictions on the federal government with respect to civil liberties, including the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.
The first clause of the First Amendment; it directs the national government not to sanction an official religion. The Court has held fast to the rule of strict separation between church and state when issues of mandatory prayer in school are involved.
Free Exercise Clause
The second clause of the First Amendment; it prohibits the U.S. government from interfering with a citizen’s right to practice his or her religion. These guarantees are NOT ABSOLUTE. Proclaims that “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”
Engel v. Vitale (1962)
The Court ruled that the recitation in public school classrooms of a brief nondenominational prayer drafted by the local school board was unconstitutional.
Abington School District v. Shempp (1963)
The Court ruled that the state-mandated Bible reading or recitation of the Lord’s prayer in public schools was also unconstitutional.
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)
The Court tried to carve out a three part test for laws dealing with religious establishment issues.
A practice or policy was constitutional if it: 1) had a legitimate secular purpose; 2) neither advanced nor inhibited religion; and 3) did not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.
The Supreme Court has often side-stepped the Lemon test altogether and has appeared more willing to lower the wall between church and state so long as school prayer is not involved.
A Missouri Law (1981)
The Court ruled unconstitutional that prohibiting the use of state university buildings and grounds for “purposes of religious worship”.
Lowering the wall further (1995)
The Court signaled that it was willing to lower the wall even further. In a case involving the University of Virginia, a 5-4 majority held that the university violated the free speech rights of a fundamentalist Christian group when it refused to fund the group’s student magazine. The importance of this decision was highlighted by Justice David Souter, who noted in dissent: “The Court today, for the first time, approves direct funding of core religious activities by an arm of the state.” The Court has demonstrated that there are boundaries to these accomodations.
Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010)
The Court ruled that the University of California Hastings College of Law could deny recognition and therefore funding to the Christian Legal Society because the group limited it membership to those who shared a common faith orientation.
Religious/ Private Schools
For more than 25 years the Supreme Court basically allowed “books only” as an aid to religious schools, noting that the books go to the children, not to the schools. But, in 2000, the Court voted 6-3 to uphold the constitutionality of a federal aid provision that allowed the government to lend books and computers to religious schools. And, in 2002, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court concluded that governments can give money to parents to allow them to send their children to private or religious schools.
Basically, the Court now appears willing to support programs so long as they provide aid to religious and nonreligious schools alike, and the money goes to persons who exercise free choice over how it is used.
Prayer in school
In 1992, the Court continued its unwillingness to allow organized prayer in public schools by finding it unconstitutional the saying of prayer at a middle school graduation. And, in 2000, the Court ruled that student-led, student- initiated prayer at high school football games violated the establishment clause.
Other violations of Establishment Clause
In 2005, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision narrowly upheld the continued vitality of the Lemon test in holding that a privately donated courthouse display, which included the Ten Commandments and 300 other historical documents illustrating the evolution of American Law, was a violation of the First AMendment’s Establishment Clause.
In 2010, The Court appeared to reverse course. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that a white cross erected on World War I memorial on federal lands in the Mojave Desert was constitutional.
Free Exercise Violations
In 1990, the Supreme COurt ruled that the free exercise clause allowed Oregon to ban the use of sacramental peyote in some Native American Tribes’ traditional religious services. Congressional response was passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which makes it harder for states to interfere with how citizens practice their religion. Congress ruled a portions of the act unconstitutional.
In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court found the use of Hosasea tea permissible free exercise of religion for members of Brazilian-based O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal Church.