The first clause in the Bill of Rights states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” For approximately the first 150 years of the country’s existence, there was little debate over the meaning of this clause in the Constitution. As the citizenry became more diverse, however, challenges arose to existing laws and practices, and eventually, the Supreme Court was called upon to determine the meaning of the establishment clause.

Though not explicitly stated in the First Amendment, the clause is often interpreted to mean that the Constitution requires the separation of church and state. Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, was the first public official to use this metaphor. He opined that an authentic Christian church would be possible only if there was “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “wilderness of the world” and “the garden of the church.” Williams believed that any government involvement in the church would corrupt the church.

The most famous use of the metaphor was by Thomas Jefferson in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. In it, Jefferson declared that when the American people adopted the establishment clause they built a “wall of separation between the church and state.” Jefferson had earlier witnessed the turmoil of the American colonists as they struggled to combine governance with religious expression. Some colonies experimented with religious freedom while others strongly supported an established church. One of the decisive battlegrounds for disestablishment was Jefferson’s colony of Virginia, where the Anglican Church had long been the established church. Both Jefferson and fellow Virginian James Madison felt that state support for a particular religion or for any religion was improper. They argued that compelling citizens to support through taxation a faith they did not follow violated their natural right to religious liberty. The two were aided in their fight for disestablishment by the Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and other “dissenting” faiths of Anglican Virginia.

During the debates surrounding both its writing and its ratification, many religious groups feared that the Constitution offered an insufficient guarantee of the civil and religious rights of citizens. To help win ratification, Madison proposed a bill of rights that would include religious liberty. As presidents, though, both Jefferson and Madison could be accused of mixing religion and government. Madison issued proclamations of religious fasting and thanksgivings while Jefferson signed treaties that sent religious ministers to the Native Americans. And from its inception, the Supreme Court has opened each of its sessions with the cry “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

It was not until after World War II that the Court interpreted the meaning of the establishment clause. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court held that the establishment clause is one of the liberties protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, making it applicable to state laws and local ordinances. Since then the Court has attempted to discern the precise nature of the separation of church and state.

In 1971 the Court considered the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania statute that provided financial support to nonpublic schools for teacher salaries, textbooks, and instructional materials for secular subjects and a Rhode Island statute that provided direct supplemental salary payments to teachers in nonpublic elementary schools. In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Court established a three-pronged test for laws dealing with religious establishment. To be constitutional a statute must have “a secular legislative purpose,” it must have principal effects that neither advance nor inhibit religion, and it must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” Twenty-six years later the Court modified the Lemon test in Agostini v. Felton (1997) by combining the last two elements, leaving a “purpose” prong and a modified “effects” prong.

In County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union (1989), a group of justices led by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in his dissent developed a coercion test: the government does not violate the establishment clause unless it provides direct aid to religion in a way that would tend to establish a state church or involve citizens in religion against their will. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor proposed an endorsement test that asks whether a particular government action amounts to an endorsement of religion. In Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), O’Connor noted that the establishment clause prohibits the government from making adherence to a religion relevant to a person’s standing in the political community. Her fundamental concern was whether government action conveyed a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders. The endorsement test is often invoked in religious display cases. In McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union (2005), the Court ruled that the display of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courtrooms was unconstitutional but refused in the companion case, Van Orden v. Perry (2005), to require the removal of a long-standing monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.

Questions involving appropriate use of government funds are increasingly subject to the neutrality test, which requires the government to treat religious groups the same as it would any other similarly situated group. In a test of Ohio’s school voucher program, the Court held 5-4 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that Ohio’s program is part of the state’s general, neutral undertaking to provide educational opportunities to children and does not violate the establishment clause. In his opinion for the majority, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that the “Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion.”

From the colonial era to the present, religions and religious beliefs have played a significant role in the political life of the United States. Religion has been at the core of some of the best and worst movements in the country’s history. As religious diversity continues to grow, concerns about separation of church and state are likely to continue.

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