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. Read More.

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. Read More.

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. Read More.

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. Read More.

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 (1984)

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. Read More.

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. Read More.

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. Read More.

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. Read More.

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. Read More.

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 6-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.