Landmark Court Cases
Religious Liberty: Establishment Clause
Everson v. Board of Education (1947)
New Jersey’s reimbursement to parents of parochial and private school students for the costs of busing their children to school was upheld because the assistance went to the child, not the church. This case also applied the Establishment Clause to the actions of state governments.
Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)
A Maryland requirement that candidates for public office swear that they believe in God was a religious test and violated Article VI of the Constitution as well as the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Engel v. Vitale (1962)
New York’s requirement of a state-composed prayer to begin the school day was declared an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause.
Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)
A Pennsylvania law requiring that each public school day open with Bible reading was struck down as violating the Establishment Clause.
Murray v. Curlett (1963)
A Maryland law requiring prayer at the beginning of each public school day was declared unconstitutional as a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)
An Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional, because it was based on “fundamentalist sectarian conviction” and violated the Establishment Clause.
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)
The Court struck down a Pennsylvania law reimbursing religious schools for textbooks and teacher salaries. The decision held that a program does not violate the Constitution if: (a) it has a primarily secular purpose; (b) its principal effect neither aids nor inhibits religion; and (c) government and religion are not excessively entangled.
Stone v. Graham (1980)
State laws mandating the display of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms were declared unconstitutional as a violation of the Establishment Clause.
Mueller v. Allen (1982)
The Court upheld Minnesota’s extension of tax credits to parents for money spent on tuition, books, transportation and other costs associated with private and religious schools. Because the tax credits did not have the effect of advancing religion, and government and religion were not excessively entangled, there was no Establishment Clause violation.
Marsh v. Chambers (1983)
States had the right to hire a chaplain to open legislative sessions with a prayer or invocation. The traditional practice did not violate the Establishment Clause.
Lynch v. Donnelly (l984)
The Court upheld a nativity display among other symbols in a public park “to celebrate the Christmas holiday and to depict the origins of that holiday.”
Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)
An Alabama law setting aside a moment for “voluntary prayer” and allowing teachers to lead “willing students” in a prayer to “Almighty God . . . the Creator and Supreme Judge of the world” in public schools was struck down. The law had no secular purpose and endorsed religion, violating the Establishment Clause.
Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)
Louisiana could not require public schools that taught evolution to teach creationism as “Creation Science.” The law had no secular purpose and endorsed religion, violating the Establishment Clause.
Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU (1989)
A nativity scene with the words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” meaning “Glory to God in the Highest,” placed alone on the grand staircase of a courthouse endorsed religion and violated the Establishment Clause.
Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990)
The 1990 Equal Access Act, which required that public schools give religious groups the same access to facilities that other extracurricular groups have, was upheld. Allowing religious clubs to meet did not violate the Establishment Clause.
Lee v. Weisman (1992)
Officially approved, clergy-led prayer at public school graduations led to subtle religious coercion, and violated the Establishment Clause.
Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993)
A school district had to provide a sign interpreter to a deaf child at a religious school. The aid was constitutional because it went to the student, not the church.
Kiryas Joel School District v. Grumet (1994)
A New York law creating a special school district to benefit disabled Orthodox Jewish children was struck down because it benefited a single religious group and was not neutral to religion.
Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette (1995)
A cross placed by a private group in a traditional public forum adjoining the state house did not violate the Establishment Clause, as the space was open to all on equal terms.
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)
A public school district’s policy of having students vote on a prayer to be read by a student at football games violated the Establishment Clause. The voting policy resulted in religious coercion of the minority by the majority.
Mitchell v. Helms (2000)
The federal government could provide computer equipment to all schools—public, private and parochial—under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The aid was religiously neutral and did not violate the Establishment Clause.
Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001)
Religious clubs were allowed to meet in public schools after class hours as other clubs were permitted to do. Allowing religious clubs to meet did not violate the Establishment Clause.
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002)
A government program providing tuition vouchers for Cleveland schoolchildren to attend a private school of their parents’ choosing was upheld. The vouchers were neutral towards religion and did not violate the Establishment Clause.
Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004)
A father challenged the constitutionality of requiring public school teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, which has included the phrase “under God” since 1954. The Court determined that Mr. Newdow, as a non-custodial parent, did not have standing to bring the case to court and therefore did not answer the constitutional question.
Van Orden v. Perry (2005)
A six-foot monument displaying the Ten Commandments donated by a private group and placed with other monuments next to the Texas State Capitol had a secular purpose and would not lead an observer to conclude that the state endorsed the religious message, and therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause.
McCreary County v. ACLU (2005)
Two large, framed copies of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses lacked a secular purpose and were not religiously neutral, and therefore violated the Establishment Clause.
Cutter v. Wilkinson (2005)
A federal law prohibiting government from burdening prisoners’ religious exercise did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (2007)
After the Bush Administration created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the purpose of allowing religious charity organizations to gain federal funding, the Court ruled that taxpayers cannot bring Establishment Clause challenges against programs funded by the executive office.
Religious Liberty: Free Exercise Clause
Reynolds v. United States (1879)
A federal law banning polygamy was upheld. The Free Exercise Clause forbids government from regulating belief, but does allow government to regulate actions such as marriage.
Minersville v. Gobitas (1940)
The Court upheld a Pennsylvania flag-salute law, because “religious liberty must give way to political authority.” This was reversed in West Virginia v. Barnette (1943).
Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)
States could not require special permits for religious solicitation when permits were not required for non-religious solicitation. The Court began applying the Free Exercise Clause to the states and recognized an absolute freedom of belief.
Braunfeld v. Brown (1961)
The Court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring stores to be closed on Sundays, even though Orthodox Jews claimed the law unduly burdened them since their religion required them to close their stores on Saturdays as well. The Court held that the law did not target Jews specifically as a group.
Sherbert v. Verner (1963)
The Court ruled that states could not deny unemployment benefits to a person for turning down a job because it required him/her to work on the Sabbath. Requiring a person to abandon their religious convictions in order to receive benefits was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause.
Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)
The Court ruled that Amish adolescents could be exempt from a state law requiring school attendance for all 14- to 16-year-olds, since their religion required living apart from the world and worldly influence. The state’s interest in students’ attending two more years of school was not enough to outweigh the individual right to free exercise.
McDaniel v. Paty (1978)
A Tennessee law barring members of the clergy from public office was overturned because it directly targeted people because of their religious profession.
Thornton v. Caldor (1985)
Private companies are free to fire people who refuse to work on any day they claim is their Sabbath, because the First Amendment applies only to government, not to private employers.
Goldman v. Weinberger (1986)
Air Force penalties against a Jewish chaplain who wore a yarmulke (skull cap) on duty in defiance of regulations were upheld. The military’s interest in uniformity outweighed the individual right to free exercise.
Employment Division v. Smith (1990)
Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to someone fired from a job for illegally smoking peyote during a religious ceremony. The Free Exercise Clause does not excuse people from obeying the law.
Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993)
Laws passed by four Florida cities banning animal sacrifice were targeted at the Santeria religion, which employs animal sacrifice in prayer, and therefore the laws were unconstitutional.
Locke v. Davey (2004)
States could refuse to award scholarship funds to college students pursuing divinity degrees in preparation for the ministry. The denial of government funding for religious instruction was not a violation of free exercise.
Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (2006)
The courts ruled unanimously in favor of a small religious group who had argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 required that they be free to use hoasca—an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act—for religious purposes. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the Court had to review individual religious freedom claims and grant exceptions to generally-applicable laws.
Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010)
The court ruled that a student organization at a public university was not free to limit their members to those who shared their belief system if that resulted in discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The Bill of Rights Institute is grateful to
The George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom
The Ambassador John L. Loeb Visitor’s Center at the Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island
for making Religious Liberty: The American Experiment a reality.