Friday, April 08, 2016

The Establishment Clause: Separation of Church and State

Assign Concept Reading

As part of the First Amendment's religious freedom guarantees, the Establishment Clause requires a separation of church and state.


Describe the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Distinguish the Establishment Clause from other clauses of the First Amendment


The Establishment Clause prohibits the creation of a national religion, and also prohibits the US government from favoring one religion over another or excessively entangling itself with religious issues or groups.

Thomas Jefferson is often cited as being the one who introduced the concept of the separation of church and state.
The Establishment Clause has been incorporated against the states via theFourteenth Amendment. However, the process has been tricky, as it is argued that the Fourteenth Amendment speaks to individual rights, while the Establishment Clause does not.

The Supreme Court has made judgments on three main questions: can the US government give financial assistance to religious groups? Is state-sanctioned prayer in public schools acceptable? Are religious displays in government-affiliated places acceptable?

The "Lemon Test," established by Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) provided a three-part test for determining whether or not a law or act violates the Establishment Clause.


separation of church and state

The distance in the relationship between organized religion and the nation state.

First Amendment

The first of ten amendments to the constitution of the United States, which protects freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and the press.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 (April 2, 1743 O.S.) – July 4, 1826) was an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the third President of the United States (1801–1809).

establishment clause

a pronouncement in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibits both the establishment of a national religion by Congress, and the preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another

Lemon Test

a method of measuring weather a government action violates the Establishment Clause of the United States' constitution concerning religion. To pass the test, the action must have a secular legislative purpose, must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.


The Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. " Together with the Free Exercise Clause ("... or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"), these two clauses make up what are called the "religion clauses" of the First Amendment.

The Establishment Clause has generally been interpreted to prohibit (1) the establishment of a national religion by Congress, or (2) the preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another. The first approach is called the "separation" or "no aid" interpretation, while the second approach is called the "non-preferential" or "accommodation" interpretation. The accommodation interpretation prohibits Congress from preferring one religion over another, but does not prohibit the government's entry into religious domain to make accommodations in order to achieve the purposes of the Free Exercise Clause.
The "Wall of Separation"

Thomas Jefferson wrote that the First Amendment erected a "wall of separation between church and state", likely borrowing the language from Roger Williams, founder of the Colony of Rhode Island . James Madison, often regarded as the "Father of the Bill of Rights", also often wrote of the "perfect separation", "line of separation", and "total separation of the church from the state. "

Incorporation of the Establishment Clause

Incorporation of the Establishment Clause in 1947 has been tricky and subject to much more critique than incorporation of the Free Exercise Clause. The controversy surrounding Establishment Clause incorporation primarily stems from the fact that one of the intentions of the Establishment Clause was to prevent Congress from interfering with state establishments of religion that existed at the time of the founding.

Critics have also argued that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is understood to incorporate only individual rights found in the Bill of Rights; the Establishment Clause, unlike the Free Exercise Clause (which critics readily concede protects individual rights), does not purport to protect individual rights.

Controversy Over the Establishment Clause

Controversy rages in the United States between those who wish to restrict government involvement with religious institutions and remove religious references from government institutions and property, and those who wish to loosen suchprohibitions. Advocates for stronger separation of church and state emphasize the plurality of faiths and non-faiths in the country, and what they see as broad guarantees of the federal Constitution. Their opponents emphasize what they see as the largely Christian heritage and history of the nation (often citing the references to "Nature's God" and the "Creator" of men in the Declaration of Independence).

Main Questions of the Establishment Clause

One main question of the Establishment Clause is: does government financial assistance to religious groups violate the Establishment Clause? The Supreme Court first considered this issue in Bradfield v. Roberts (1899). The federal government had funded a hospital operated by a Roman Catholic institution. In that case, the Court ruled that the funding was to a secular organization—the hospital—and was therefore permissible.

Another main question is: should state-sanctioned prayer or religion in public schools be allowed? The Supreme Court has consistently held fast to the rule of strict separation of church and state in this issue. In Engel v. Vitale (1962) the Court ruled that government-imposed nondenominational prayer in public school was unconstitutional. In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court ruled prayer established by a principal at a middle school graduation was also unconstitutional, and in Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000) it ruled that school officials may not directly or indirectly impose student-led prayer during high school football games .

Pledge of Allegiance

In 2002, controversy centered on a California court case that struck down a law providing for the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (which includes the phrase "under God") in classrooms. Congress and the Supreme Court eventually overturned the ruling, demonstrating the controversy that exists in the interpretations of the Establishment Clause.

Lastly, are religious displays in public places allowed under the Establishment Clause? The inclusion of religious symbols in public holiday displays came before the Supreme Court in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), and again in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU (1989). In the former case, the Court upheld a public display, ruling that any benefit to religion was "indirect, remote, and incidental. " In Allegheny County, however, the Court struck down a display that had more overt religious themes .

Religious Displays

In 2001, the Chief Justice of Alabama installed a monument to the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building (pictured here). In 2003, a court case determined that this was not allowed under the Establishment Clause.

The Lemon Test

The distinction between force of government and individual liberty is the cornerstone of such cases. Each case restricts acts by government designed to establish a religion, while affirming peoples' individual freedom to practice their religions. The Court has therefore tried to determine a way to deal with church/state questions. In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Court created a three part test for laws dealing with religious establishment. This determined that a law related to religious practices was constitutional if it:
Had a secular purpose;
Neither advanced nor inhibited religion; and,
Did not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

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Referenced in 3 quiz questions

Which of the following statements about the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment is FALSE?

Thomas Jefferson argued that people should be free to adopt atheism., Americans universally feared state-sponsored religion, because they had come from Britain to escape religious persecution., James Madison advocated for the separation of church and state as a way of avoiding religious conflicts like the ones in England and Russia., or Before the establishment clause, nine of the thirteen original colonies supported a single religion.

Which of the following statements about the establishment clause of the First Amendment is FALSE?

Establishment clause cases involve a balance between individual liberty and government authority, The clause was written in response to the persecution of Protestants in France and Spain, The plurality of faiths and non-faiths is consistent with the separation of church and state, or The separation of church and state applies to all states of the union

How does the establishment clause differ from the free exercise clause of the Constitution?

The establishment clause does not always protect individual rights, The free exercise clause stresses financial assistance to religious groups, The free exercise clause applies only to naturalized citizens, or The establishment clause was incorporated to deal only with Supreme Court cases




Source: Boundless. “The Establishment Clause: Separation of Church and State.” Boundless Political Science. Boundless, 21 Jul. 2015. Retrieved 08 Apr. 2016 from



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