A Wall of Separation (Court Cases Involving Church and State)

This is an evolving project. A few years back, I started by blogging about Supreme Court cases impacting the role of religion in relation to public schooling. In order to use some of these case summaries in class, I started editing and reformatting them afterwards. Then I figured since the work was already being done, why not just post the classroom-ready versions as well?

Here's my in-progress summary of relevant cases related to church/state issues in relation to public schooling and a few which aren't. Please note that the PDF versions may vary slightly from the blogged & posted versions. 

Building A “Wall of Separation” (Faith & School) – Brief background to the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists which introduced the phrase “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Everson v. Board of Education (1947) – It’s OK for the state to reimburse parents for transportation costs of getting their children to school, whether public or private, sectarian or secular.

McCollum v. Board of Education of School District (1948) - The use of public school facilities by religious organizations to give religious instruction to school children violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This does not prohibit teaching about religion, or schools allowing religious groups to use their facilities outside of school ours (as long as they do so equitably). It does prohibit coercing students into religious instruction as part of the school day. 

Engel v. Vitale (1962) – The state can NOT require - or even promote – prayer in public schools as part of the school day. 

Abington v. Schempp (1963) – The state can NOT require or promote the reading of Bible verses or recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as stand-alone activities during the school day. (Studying the Bible or the Christian religion as part of history, literature, etc., still perfectly appropriate.)

Board of Education v. Allen (1968) – It’s OK for the state to provide textbooks free of charge to all secondary students (Grades 7 – 12), including those in private schools. An important part of the Court’s reasoning in this case was that the textbooks constituted aid directly to students, rather than institutions.  

Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York (1970) – Not specifically a ‘religion in schools’ case. It’s OK for states to offer property tax exemptions for groups serving the public good – even if they’re religious in nature.

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) – State aid to sectarian institutions such as private Catholic schools violates the Establishment Clause and is unconstitutional. This case also established “The Lemon Test” – “Three such tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion… finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion’…”

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) – The state’s interest in an educated citizenry is outweighed by the right of the Amish to maintain their faith and their communities. Parents may pull their children out of public schooling for religious reasons once they turn 16 – especially given the Amish track record for becoming productive, well-behaved members of society. The Court had previously attempted to distinguish between regulating beliefs and regulating behavior – in this case, the two were the inseparable. They instead introduced the idea of “balanced interests’ – the state’s interest in an educated populace vs. the parents’ or individual’ interest in pursuing their faith as they see fit. 

Meek v. Pittenger (1975) – It’s unconstitutional for the state to provide materials and equipment for non-public schools, or to pay for support services for students at those schools. As in Allen, however, textbooks (for traditional subjects) were fine. 

Stone v. Graham (1980) – State cannot require schools to post the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, even if paid for by private money. 

Mueller v. Allen (1983) – It’s OK for the state to let parents deduct expenses related to “tuition, textbooks, and transportation” for their children, regardless of whether their child attends public or private school, even if sectarian. Significantly, the Court determined that as long as the intent is secular, it’s OK for the effect to significantly favor parents sending their kids to religious schools. This case is considered one of the three foundational cases leading up to vouchers. 

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) – While a “moment of silence” is fine, any nudging towards prayer, especially with teacher participation, is unconstitutional. This issue will come up again. 

Aguilar v. Felton (1985)-  A NYC program sending public school teachers into parochial schools to provide extra help for disadvantaged children was ruled an unconstitutional “entanglement” of church and state, thus violating the Establishment Clause. This ruling was overturned a decade later in Agostini v. Felton (1997).

Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (1986) – A state agency which provided assistance to blind students pursuing education or job training may continue to do so even if the education/profession being pursued is religious in nature. This case didn’t involve public education, but did nudge along an understanding of the law which certainly does. This case is considered one of the three foundational cases leading up to vouchers.

Lee v. Weisman (1992) – It’s unconstitutional for schools to have clergymen offering prayers at graduation ceremonies, no matter how general or brief the prayers. Even if not technically ‘required’, or even on school property, participation is still coerced and thus a violation of the “establishment clause.” 

Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993) – Students attending private sectarian schools are still entitled to support services from public schools – in this case, a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student. This case is considered one of the three foundational cases leading up to vouchers. 

Agostini v. Felton (1997) - Overturned Aguilar v. Felton (1985). It was no longer considered a violation of the Establishment Clause for a state-sponsored education initiative to send public school teachers into religious schools, so long as reasonable steps were taken to minimize “entanglement.” 

The Ten Commandments (Part One) - Background, the "Lemon Test," some cases which made the news but not the Supreme Court Docket, and two that did - McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005) and Van Orden v. Perry (2005).

The Ten Commandments (Part Two) - Recap of Part One, Pleasant Grove v. Summum (2009), Green v Haskell County Board of Commissioners (2009), and Felix v. Bloomfield (2014).

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