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First Amendment: the Establishment Clause (1791)

At minimum, the Establishment Clause prevents Congress from establishing a national religion or a national church. The Clause is also invoked to prevent government from endorsing a religion, from helping or hurting a particular religion, or from becoming excessively entangled with religion. This clause also complements Article VI’s prohibition of religious test for officials. While originally written to apply to actions of the federal government, the Supreme Court incorporated it to state governments through the Fourteenth Amendment in the case Everson v. Board of Education (1947).

Charles Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were champions of religious liberty in the early republic. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom led to the disestablishment of the Virginia state church. All the other states eventually followed Virginia’s example. Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists explained his personal view of the Establishment Clause’s purpose. Several Supreme Court justices, including Hugo Black, have written strong opinions about the Clause’s meaning. Sandra Day O’Connor devised the Endorsement Test to determine the constitutionality of government action in light of the Establishment Clause.

Supreme Court cases centered on the Establishment Clause include Engel v. Vitale (1962), Stone v. Graham (1980), Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002).