Religion in Public Life

Demonstrators gather on the steps of the plaza outside the state house in Montgomery, Ala., protesting the removal of the Ten Commandments monument inside, 2003.
Queens-raised Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Ramzi Kassem leads CLEAR, addressing legal needs of NYC's Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities.

The First Amendment’s religion clauses prevent the government from establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The Establishment Clause means that there cannot be a national religion, as is the case with the Church of England. The Free Exercise Clause, sometimes referred to as the “other side of the coin,” means that the government cannot interfere with individuals’ exercise of whatever religion they choose. However, the application of these principles is unclear in many circumstances, including religion in public schools, in the public square, and even at work.

The degree to which the government can accommodate religion in public life has been debated in numerous Supreme Court decisions. Justice Hugo Black argued that the “wall of separation” must be kept “high and impregnable,” although in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court lowered the wall somewhat, stating that tax dollars can be levied to reimburse parents for bus transportation to and from parochial schools.

Subsequent Court rulings point to the malleability of the “wall of separation.” In McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), the Court decided religious instruction could not be offered in public schools and in Engel v. Vitale (1962) rejected optional school-sponsored prayer. However, in Zelman v. Simmons- Harris (2002), the Court upheld tax-funded school “vouchers” being used to pay tuition at parochial schools.

In Reynolds v. United States (1878), the Court interpreted the Free Exercise Clause as safeguarding religious beliefs rather than religious practices such as polygamy that conflict with criminal laws. Displaying the Ten Commandments on government property recently sparked controversy in Texas and Kentucky. In Van Orden v. Perry (2005) the Court ruled the display could remain as the Ten Commandments had historical as well as religious significance, but in McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005), decided the same day, the Court held the Ten Commandments display was religiously motivated and not constitutional. The Court is scheduled to decide whether a prayer before a town meeting, in Greece, New York, violates the Establishment Clause.

“It is true that many Americans find the Commandments in accord with their personal beliefs. But we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”

— Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, dissent in Van Orden v. Perry (2005)


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