Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceab...
Madison's original proposal for a bill of rights provision concerning religion read: "The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretence, infringed."
It was in the conference committee of the two bodies, chaired by Madison, that the present language was written with its somewhat more indefinite "respecting" phraseology.
Scholarly Commentary.-The explication of the religion clauses by scholars in the nineteenth century gave a restrained sense of their meaning. Story, who thought that "the right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons, who believe that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well being of the state, and indispensable to the administration of civil justice,"
"Probably," Story also wrote, "at the time of the adoption of the constitution and of the amendment to it, now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation."
Not until the Supreme Court held the religion clauses applicable to the states in the 1940s
More recent decisions, however, evidence a narrower interpretation of the religion clauses. Indeed, in Employment Division, Oregon Department of Human Resources v. Smith
Court Tests Applied to Legislation Affecting Religion.- Before considering in detail the development of the two religion clauses by the Supreme Court, one should notice briefly the tests the Court has articulated to adjudicate the religion cases. At the same time it should be emphasized that the Court has noted that the language of earlier cases "may have [contained] too sweeping utterances on aspects of these clauses that seemed clear in relation to the particular cases but have limited meaning as general principles."
In 1802, President Jefferson wrote a letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, in which he declared that it was the purpose of the First Amendment to build "a wall of separation between Church and State."
Although at one time accepted in principle by all of the Justices,
In interpreting and applying the Free Exercise Clause, the Court has consistently held religious beliefs to be absolutely immune from governmental interference.
Government Neutrality in Religious Disputes.-One value that both clauses of the religion section serve is to enforce governmental neutrality in deciding controversies arising out of religious disputes. Schism sometimes develops within churches or between a local church and the general church, resulting in secession or expulsion of one faction or of the local church. A dispute over which body is to have control of the property of the church will then often be taken into the courts. It is now established that both religion clauses prevent governmental inquiry into religious doctrine in settling such disputes, and instead require courts simply to look to the decision-making body or process in the church and to give effect to whatever decision is officially and properly made.
The first such case was Watson v. Jones,
In Jones v. Wolf,
Thus, it is unclear where the Court is on this issue. Jones v. Wolf restated the rule that it is improper to review an ecclesiastical dispute and that deference is required in those cases, but by approving a neutral principles inquiry which in effect can filter out the doctrinal issues underlying a church dispute, the Court seems to have approved at least an indirect limitation of the authority of hierarchical churches.
Establishment of Religion
"[F]or the men who wrote the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment the 'establishment' of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity."
Financial Assistance to Church-Related Institutions.- The Court's first opportunity to rule on the validity of governmental financial assistance to a religiously affiliated institution occurred in 1899, the assistance being a federal grant for the construction of a wing of a hospital owned and operated by a Roman Catholic order which was to be devoted to the care of the poor. The Court viewed the hospital primarily as a secular institution so chartered by Congress and not as a religious or sectarian body, and thus avoided the constitutional issue.
But despite this interpretation, the majority sustained the provision of transportation. While recognizing that "it approaches the verge" of the State's constitutional power, still, Justice Black thought, the transportation was a form of "public welfare legislation" which was being extended "to all its citizens without regard to their religious belief."
The Court in 1968 relied on the "child benefit" theory to sustain state loans of textbooks to parochial school students.
From these beginnings, the case law on the discretion of state and federal governmental assistance to sectarian elementary and secondary schools as well as other religious entities has multiplied. Through the 1970s, at least, the law became as restrictive in fact as the dicta in the early cases suggested, save for the provision of some assistance to children under the "child benefit" theory. Since that time the Court has gradually adopted a more accommodating approach. It has upheld direct aid programs that have been of only marginal benefit to the religious mission of the recipient elementary and secondary schools, tax benefit and scholarship aid programs where the schools have received the assistance as the result of the independent decisions of the parents or students who initially receive the aid, and in its most recent decisions direct aid programs which substantially benefit the educational function of such schools. Indeed, in its most recent decisions the Court has overturned several of the most restrictive school aid precedents from its earlier jurisprudence. Throughout, the Court has allowed greater discretion with respect to aid programs benefiting religiously affiliated colleges and social services agencies.
A secular purpose is the first requirement of the Lemon tripartite test to sustain the validity of legislation touching upon religion, and upon this standard the Justices display little disagreement. There are adequate legitimate, non-sectarian bases for legislation to assist nonpublic, religious schools: preservation of a healthy and safe educational environment for all school children, promotion of pluralism and diversity among public and nonpublic schools, and prevention of overburdening of the public school system that would accompany the financial failure of private schools.
The primary secular effect and no excessive entanglement aspects of the Lemon test, however, have proven much more divisive. As a consequence, the Court's applications of these tests have not always been consistent, and the rules guiding their application have not always been easy to decipher. Moreover, in its most recent decisions the Court has substantially modified the strictures these tests have previously imposed on public aid to pervasively sectarian entities.
In applying the primary effect and excessive entanglement tests, the Court has drawn a distinction between public aid programs that directly aid sectarian entities and those that do so only indirectly. Aid provided directly, the Court has said, must be limited to secular use lest it have a primary effect of advancing religion. The establishment clause "absolutely prohibit[s] government-financed or government-sponsored indoctrination into the beliefs of a particular religious faith."
But the Court has not imposed a secular use limitation on aid programs that benefit sectarian entities only indirectly, i.e., as the result of decisions by someone other than the government itself. The initial beneficiaries of the public aid must be determined on the basis of religiously neutral criteria, and they must have a genuine choice about whether to use the aid at sectarian or non-sectarian entities. But where those standards have been met, the Court has upheld indirect aid programs even though the sectarian institutions that ultimately benefit may use the aid for religious purposes. Moreover, the Court has gradually broadened its understanding of what constitutes a genuine choice so that now most voucher or tax benefit programs benefiting the parents of children attending sectarian schools seem able to pass constitutional muster. Thus, the Court initially struck down tax benefit and educational voucher programs where the initial beneficiaries were limited to the universe of parents of children attending sectarian schools and where the aid, as a consequence, was virtually certain to go to sectarian schools.
In applying the primary effect and excessive entanglement tests, the Court has also, until recently, drawn a distinction between religious institutions that are pervasively sectarian and those that are not. Organizations that are permeated by a religious purpose and character in all that they do have often been held by the Court to be constitutionally ineligible for direct public aid. Direct aid to religion-dominated institutions inevitably violates the primary effect test, the Court has said, because such aid generally cannot be limited to secular use in such entities and, as a consequence, it has a primary effect of advancing religion.
In its most recent decisions the Court has modified both the primary effect and excessive entanglement prongs of the Lemon test as they apply to aid programs directly benefiting sectarian elementary and secondary schools; and in so doing it has overturned several prior decisions imposing tight constraints on aid to pervasively sectarian institutions. In Agostini v. Felton
Thus, the Court's jurisprudence concerning public aid to sectarian organizations has evolved over time, particularly as it concerns public aid to sectarian elementary and secondary schools. That evolution has given some uncertainty to the rules that apply to any given form of aid; and in both Agostini v. Felton
State aid to church-connected schools was first found to have gone over the "verge"
Two programs of assistance through provision of equipment and services to private, including sectarian, schools were invalidated in Meek v. Pittenger.
The Court in two 1985 cases again struck down programs of public subsidy of instructional services provided on the premises of sectarian schools, and relied on the effects test as well as the entanglement test. In Grand Rapids School District v. Ball,
A state program to reimburse nonpublic schools for a variety of services mandated by state law was voided because the statute did not distinguish between secular and potentially religious services the costs of which would be reimbursed.
The "child benefit" theory, under which it is permissible for government to render ideologically neutral assistance and services to pupils in sectarian schools without being deemed to be aiding the religious mission of the schools, has not proved easy to apply. A number of different forms of assistance to students were at issue in Wolman v. Walter.
The Court's more recent decisions, however, have rejected the reasoning and overturned the results of several of these decisions. In two rulings the Court reversed course with respect to the constitutionality of public school personnel providing educational services on the premises of pervasively sectarian schools. First, in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District
Secondly, and more pointedly, the Court in Agostini v. Felton
Most recently, in Mitchell v. Helms
The Justices could agree on no majority opinion in Mitchell but instead joined in three different opinions. The opinions of Justice Thomas, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Kennedy, and of Justice O'Connor, joined by Justice Breyer, found the program constitutional. They agreed that to pass muster under the primary effect prong of the Lemon test direct public aid has to be secular in nature and distributed on the basis of religiously neutral criteria. They also agreed, in contrast to past rulings, that sectarian elementary and secondary schools should not be deemed constitutionally ineligible for direct aid on the grounds their secular educational functions are "inextricably intertwined" with their religious educational functions, i.e,, that they are pervasively sectarian. But their rationales for the program's constitutionality then diverged. For Justice Thomas it was sufficient that the instructional materials were secular in nature and were distributed according to neutral criteria. It made no difference whether the schools used the aid for purposes of religious indoctrination or not. But that was not sufficient for Justice O'Connor. She adhered to the view that direct public aid has to be limited to secular use by the recipient institutions. She further asserted that a limitation to secular use could be honored by the teachers in the sectarian schools and that the risk that the aid would be used for religious purposes was not so great as to require an intrusive and entangling government monitoring.
Justice Souter, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, dissented on the grounds the establishment clause bars "aid supporting a sectarian school's religious exercise or the discharge of its religious mission." Adhering to the "substantive principle of no aid" first articulated in the Everson case, he contended that direct aid to pervasively sectarian institutions inevitably results in the diversion of the aid for purposes of religious indoctrination. He further argued that the aid in this case had been so diverted.
As the opinion upholding the program's constitutionality on the narrowest grounds, Justice O'Connor's opinion provides the most current guidance on the standards governing the constitutionality of aid programs directly benefiting sectarian elementary and secondary schools.
The Court has similarly loosened the constitutional restrictions on public aid programs indirectly benefiting sectarian elementary and secondary schools. Initially, the Court in 1973 struck down substantially similar programs from New York and Pennsylvania providing for tuition reimbursement to parents of religious school children. New York's program provided reimbursements out of general tax revenues for tuition paid by low- income parents to send their children to nonpublic elementary and secondary schools; the reimbursements were of fixed amounts but could not exceed 50 percent of actual tuition paid. Pennsylvania provided fixed-sum reimbursement for parents who sent their children to nonpublic elementary and secondary schools, so long as the amount paid did not exceed actual tuition, the funds to be derived from cigarette tax revenues. Both programs, it was held, constituted public financial assistance to sectarian institutions with no attempt to segregate the benefits so that religion was not advanced.
New York had also enacted a separate program providing tax relief for low-income parents not qualifying for the tuition reimbursements; here relief was in the form of a deduction or credit bearing no relationship to the amounts of tuition paid, but keyed instead to adjusted gross income. This too was invalidated in Nyquist. "In practical terms there would appear to be little difference, for purposes of determining whether such aid has the effect of advancing religion, between the tax benefit allowed here and the tuition [reimbursement] grant.... The qualifying parent under either program receives the same form of encouragement and reward for sending his children to nonpublic schools. The only difference is that one parent receives an actual cash payment while the other is allowed to reduce by an arbitrary amount the sum he would otherwise be obliged to pay over to the State. We see no answer to Judge Hays' dissenting statement below that '[i]n both instances the money involved represents a charge made upon the state for the purpose of religious education."'
Two subsidiary arguments were rejected by the Court in these cases. First, it had been argued that the tuition reimbursement program promoted the free exercise of religion in that it permitted low-income parents desiring to send their children to school in accordance with their religious views to do so. The Court agreed that "tension inevitably exists between the Free Exercise and the Establishment Clauses," but explained that the tension is ordinarily resolved through application of the "neutrality" principle: government may neither advance nor inhibit religion. The tuition program inescapably advanced religion and thereby violated this principle.
In Wheeler v. Barrera, 417 U.S. 402 (1974), the Court held that States receiving federal educational funds were required by federal law to provide "comparable" but not equal services to both public and private school students within the restraints imposed by state constitutional restrictions on aid to religious schools. In the absence of specific plans, the Court declined to review First Amendment limitations on such services.
The limits of the Nyquist holding were clarified in 1983. In Mueller v. Allen,
A second factor important in Mueller, present but not controlling in Nyquist, was that the financial aid was provided to the parents of schoolchildren rather than to the school, and thus in the Court's view was "attenuated" rather than direct; since aid was "available only as a result of decisions of individual parents," there was no "imprimatur of state approval." The Court noted that, with the exception of Nyquist, "all . . . of our recent cases invalidating state aid to parochial schools have involved the direct transmission of assistance from the State to the schools themselves."
The Court confirmed this proposition three years later in Witters v. Washington Department of Social Services for the Blind.
In Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District
Finally, the Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris
In contrast to its rulings concerning direct aid to sectarian elementary and secondary schools, the Court, although closely divided at times, has from the start approved quite extensive public assistance to institutions of higher learning. On the same day that it first struck down an assistance program for elementary and secondary private schools, the Court sustained construction grants to church-related colleges and universities.
Also sustained was a South Carolina program under which a state authority would issue revenue bonds for construction projects on campuses of private colleges and universities. The Court did not decide whether this special form of assistance could be otherwise sustained, because it concluded that religion was neither advanced nor inhibited, nor was there any impermissible public entanglement. "Aid normally may be thought to have a primary effect of advancing religion when it flows to an institution in which religion is so pervasive that a substantial portion of its functions are subsumed in the religious mission or when it funds a specifically religious activity in an otherwise substantially secular setting."
The kind of assistance permitted by Tilton and by Hunt v. McNair seems to have been broadened when the Court sustained a Maryland program of annual subsidies to qualifying private institutions of higher education; the grants were noncategorical but could not be used for sectarian purposes, a limitation to be policed by the administering agency.
Finally, in the only case since Bradfield v. Roberts
At the time it was rendered, Bowen differed from the Court's decisions concerning direct aid to sectarian elementary and secondary schools primarily in that it refused to presume that religiously affiliated social welfare entities are pervasively sectarian. That difference had the effect of giving greater constitutional latitude to public aid to such entities than was afforded direct aid to religious elementary and secondary schools. As noted above, the Court in its recent decisions has now eliminated the presumption that such religious schools are pervasively sectarian and has extended the same constitutional latitude to aid programs benefiting such schools as it gives to aid programs benefiting religiously affiliated social welfare programs.
Governmental Encouragement of Religion in Public Schools: Released Time.- Introduction of religious education into the public schools, one of Justice Rutledge's "great drives,"
Four years later, the Court upheld a different released-time program.
Governmental Encouragement of Religion in Public Schools: Prayers and Bible Reading. -Upon recommendation of the state governing board, a local New York school required each class to begin each school day by reading aloud the following prayer in the presence of the teacher: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessing upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country." Students who wished to do so could remain silent or leave the room. Said the Court: "We think that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents' prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York's program of daily classroom invocation of God's blessings as prescribed in the Regents' prayer is a religious activity.... [W]e think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government."
The Establishment Clause . . . does not depend upon any showing of direct governmental compulsion and is violated by the enactment of laws which establish an official religion whether those laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not."
Following the prayer decision came two cases in which parents and their school age children challenged the validity under the Establishment Clause of requirements that each school day begin with readings of selections from the Bible. Scripture reading, like prayers, the Court found, was a religious exercise. "Given that finding the exercises and the law requiring them are in violation of the Establishment Clause."
While numerous efforts were made over the years to overturn these cases, through constitutional amendment and through limitations on the Court's jurisdiction, the Supreme Court itself has had no occasion to review the area again. But see Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980) (summarily reversing state court and invalidating statute requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments, purchased with private contributions, on the wall of each public classroom, on the grounds the Ten Commandments are "undeniably a sacred text" and the "pre-eminent purpose" of the posting requirement was "plainly religious in nature").
In Wallace v. Jaffree,
The school prayer decisions served as precedent for the Court's holding in Lee v. Weisman
In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe
Governmental Encouragement of Religion in Public Schools: Curriculum Restriction.- In Epperson v. Arkansas,
Similarly invalidated as having the improper purpose of advancing religion was a Louisiana statute mandating balanced treatment of "creation-science" and "evolution-science" in the public schools. "The preeminent purpose of the Louisiana legislature," the Court found in Edwards v. Aguillard, "was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created human-kind."
Access of Religious Groups to Public Property
Access of Religious Groups to Public Property.-Although government may not promote religion through its educational facilities, it may not bar student religious groups from meeting on public school property if it makes those facilities available to non-religious student groups. In the case of Widmar v. Vincent
Similarly, public schools may not rely on the Establishment Clause as grounds to discriminate against religious groups in after-hours use of school property otherwise available for non-religious social, civic, and recreational purposes. In Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School District,
Finally, the Court has made clear that public colleges may not exclude student religious organizations from benefits otherwise provided to a full spectrum of student "news, information, opinion, entertainment, or academic communications media groups." In Rosenberger v. Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia,
These cases make clear that the Establishment Clause does not necessarily trump the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech. In regulating private speech in a public forum, government may not justify discrimination against religious viewpoints as necessary to avoid creating an "establishment" of religion.
Tax Exemptions of Religious Property.-Every State and the District of Columbia provide for tax exemptions for religious institutions, and the history of such exemptions goes back to the time of our establishment as a polity. The only expression by a Supreme Court Justice prior to 1970 was by Justice Brennan, who deemed tax exemptions constitutional because the benefit conferred was incidental to the religious character of the institutions concerned.
For the second prong, the Court created a new test, the entanglement test,
While the general issue is now settled, it is to be expected that variations of the exemption upheld in Walz will present the Court with an opportunity to elaborate the field still further.
Exemption of Religious Organizations from Generally Applicable Laws.-The Civil Rights Act's exemption of religious organizations from the prohibition against religious discrimination in employment
Sunday Closing Laws.-The history of Sunday Closing Laws goes back into United States colonial history and far back into English history.
Conscientious Objection.-Historically, Congress has provided for alternative service for men who had religious scruples against participating in either combat activities or in all forms of military activities; the fact that Congress chose to draw the line of exemption on the basis of religious belief confronted the Court with a difficult constitutional question, which, however, the Court chose to avoid by a somewhat disingenuous interpretation of the statute.
Regulation of Religious Solicitation.-Although the solicitation cases have generally been decided under the free exercise or free speech clauses,
Religion in Governmental Observances.-The practice of opening legislative sessions with prayers by paid chaplains was upheld in Marsh v. Chambers,
Religious Displays on Government Property.-A different form of governmentally sanctioned religious observance-inclusion of religious symbols in governmentally sponsored holiday displays-was twice before the Court, with varying results. In 1984, in Lynch v. Donnelly,
Chief Justice Burger's opinion for the Court in Lynch began by expanding on the religious heritage theme exemplified by Marsh; other evidence that "'[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being"'
Allegheny County was also decided by a 5-4 vote, Justice Blackmun writing the opinion of the Court on the creche issue, and there being no opinion of the Court on the menorah issue.
In Capitol Square Review Bd. v. Pinette,
Miscellaneous.-In Larkin v. Grendel's Den,
Using somewhat similar reasoning, the Court in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village v. Grumet,
Free Exercise of Religion
"The Free Exercise Clause . . . withdraws from legislative power, state and federal, the exertion of any restraint on the free exercise of religion. Its purpose is to secure religious liberty in the individual by prohibiting any invasions there by civil authority."
The relationship between the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses varies with the expansiveness of interpretation of the two clauses. In a general sense both clauses proscribe governmental involvement with and interference in religious matters, but there is possible tension between a requirement of governmental neutrality derived from the Establishment Clause and a Free-Exercise-derived requirement that government accommodate some religious practices.
"Play in the joints" can work both ways, the Court ruled in upholding a state's exclusion of theology students from a college scholarship program.
The Belief-Conduct Distinction
While the Court has consistently affirmed that the Free Exercise Clause protects religious beliefs, protection for religiously motivated conduct has waxed and waned over the years. The Free Exercise Clause "embraces two concepts-freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute, but in the nature of things, the second cannot be."
Recent cases evidence a narrowing of application of the compelling interest test, and a corresponding constriction on the freedom to engage in religiously motivated conduct. First, the Court purported to apply strict scrutiny, but upheld the governmental action anyhow.