Church and State Timeline
How It All Went Down
First Amendment Drafted
Official Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving
The House of Representatives, with only two dissenting votes, passes a resolution calling for an official day of prayer and thanksgiving.
Bill of Rights Ratified
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is ratified, guaranteeing that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech."19
Treaty of Tripoli
The Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated under the administration of President George Washington, is ratified by the Senate. The treaty, in pledging American friendship with the Muslim nation, explicitly declares that "the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."20
Massachusetts disestablishes its Congregational churches, which have been its official religion since the original settlement of the Puritan colony in the early seventeenth century. Massachusetts becomes the last state to disestablish its official, tax-supported church.
Reynolds v. United States
The United States Supreme Court rules in Reynolds v. United States that George Reynolds’s religious "duties" do not protect him from prosecution under federal anti-polygamy laws. Reynolds claimed that since his Mormon religion sanctioned polygamy, the First Amendment shielded him from prosecution. But the Court holds that while his right to religious belief is absolute, the government has a responsibility to curb religious practices that conflict with the broader interests of the community. Polygamy, the Court argues, is an indefensible religious practice and therefore his conviction stands.
Cantwell v. Connecticut
In Cantwell v. Connecticut, the United States Supreme Court holds that a local solicitation ordinance violates the First Amendment rights of the Jehovah’s Witnesses bringing the suit. In reaching this decision, the Court "incorporates" the free exercise and establishmentclauses of the First Amendment, making its terms applicable to the state governments as well as to the federal government.
Everson v. Board of Education
The United States Supreme Court rules in the case of Everson v. Board of Education, Township of Ewing that New Jersey's law subsidizing the transportation of students to Catholic schools on public buses is not a violation of the establishment clause. The Court argues that transportation, like police and fire protection, appropriately advances the public welfare, and that the child, not the religious school, is the primary beneficiary of the aid. Therefore the state’s practice does not violate the First Amendment.
Zorach v. Clausen
In Zorach v. Clausen, the United States Supreme Court rules that New York’s "released time" program, which allows public school students to leave school early in order to attend religion classes, is permissible because the religious instruction takes place off school grounds. In an earlier case, McCollum v. Board of Education, the Court had ruled an Illinois released time program unconstitutional because the religious instruction occurred on public school grounds.
Engel v. Vitale
In Engel v. Vitale, the United States Supreme Court rules that the Regents' Prayer, recited daily in New York public schools, violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Despite claims that the prayer is denominationally neutral and that students could choose to remain silent or leave the room, the Court argues that in composing an "official prayer" and coordinating a daily religious observance, the state had violated the First Amendment.
Abington School District v. Schempp
In Abington School District v. Schempp, the United States Supreme Court rules that a Pennsylvania law requiring the reading of Biblical scriptures in public schools is a violation of the establishment clause. The Court rejects the state’s argument that the daily exercise is designed to teach moral values, not religious doctrine.
Epperson v. Arkansas
In Epperson v. Arkansas, the United States Supreme Court strikes down an Arkansas state law that prohibits the teaching of Darwinian evolution. The Court argues that the First Amendment requires government neutrality on questions of religion and overturns the Arkansas State Supreme Court, which had ruled that the state's law represented a legitimate exercise of its authority to determine school curriculum.
Lemon v. Kurtzman
In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the United States Supreme Court clarifies the standard for determining whether a form of public aid to religious schools violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. To be constitutional, the aid must 1) advance a secular objective, 2) neither advance nor inhibit religion, and 3) not lead to the excessive entanglement of government and religion. The first two criteria had already been established; the third represents a new legal test for a form of government aid.
McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education
In McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, a United States Federal Court strikes down an Arkansas law requiring that "evolution-science" and "creation-science" be given "equal treatment" in the classroom. The court rejects Arkansas' claim that "creation-science" is a legitimate science and holds that the purpose of the Arkansas law is to advance religion and therefore is impermissible.
Mueller v. Allen
In Mueller v. Allen, the United States Supreme Court decides that a Minnesota tax deduction for school tuition, transportation, books, and supplies is allowable because both public and private school parents can benefit. The Court acknowledges that tuition-paying parents of religious school children reap the largest benefits, but the Court holds that "whatever unequal effect may be attributed to the statutory classification can fairly be regarded as a rough return for the benefits . . . provided to the State and all taxpayers by parents sending their children to parochial schools."21
Wallace v. Jaffree
In Wallace v. Jaffree, the United States Supreme Court rules that an Alabama law authorizing public school teachers to hold a minute of silence for "meditation or voluntary prayer" violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Court holds that the Alabama statute fails the Lemon Test by advancing a religious, rather than a secular, purpose.
Edwards v. Aguillard
In Edwards v. Aguillard, the United States Supreme Court strikes down a Louisiana law that requires the teaching of creationism alongside evolution. The Court rules that the law fails to pass the criteria established in Lemon v. Kurtzman (the Lemon Test)—that is, the law advances a religious objective and it leads to the excessive entanglement of church and state by mandating "the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose."22
Employment Division v. Smith
In Employment Division v. Smith, the United States Supreme Court upholds a government refusal to provide unemployment benefits to two men fired for using drugs. The fired drug rehabilitation program employees claim that their use of peyote is part of a Native American religious ritual and therefore they are protected from retaliatory action by the First Amendment. But the Court holds that "if prohibiting the exercise of religion . . . is not the object . . . but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended."23 In other words, if a law is generally defensible and its purposes are valid, an individual's religious reasons for violating that law do not entitle him to any extraordinary protection from the consequences.
Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District
The United States Supreme Court rules in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District that the district may provide a sign language interpreter for a deaf child attending a Catholic high school without violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Agostini v. Felton
In Agostini v. Felton, the United States Supreme Court overturns an earlier decision (Aguilar v. Felton) that a New York City program designed to provide tutoring and remedial education services to low-income children could not deliver these service on a religious school campus. Holding that allowing public employees to provide tutoring on a religious school campus would not constitute a "symbolic union" of church and state, the Court holds that the federally-funded program could deliver its services on a religious school campus without violating the establishment clause.
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe
In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the United States Supreme Court rules that the Santa Fe High School practice of conducting a prayer, led by a student-elected chaplain, before football games is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Even though the school district modified the practice by holding a second election that asked the students if they wanted to hold these public prayers, the Court holds that the practice still represents a form of state sanctioned religious coercion that violates the rights of the dissenting students.
Mitchell v. Helms
In Mitchell v. Helms, the United States Supreme Court affirms the constitutionality of a Louisiana state program that provides books, computers, lab equipment, televisions, and video tape recorders to religious schools, thus broadening the range of permissible state assistance to religious schools.
White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
President George W. Bush signs an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to subsidize church-affiliated organizations that address public needs such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation and domestic violence. Critics argue that this represents a violation of the establishment clause.
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris
In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the United States Supreme Court rules that Cleveland's school voucher program does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Court argues that since the program addresses a legitimate secular purpose of improving the educational options of poor children within a struggling school system. Since the vouchers, in the form of scholarships of up to $2250, are made available to a large category of people who are then free to direct this money to the school of their choice, religious or non-religious, the government program is neutral on religion and therefore not in violation of the First Amendment.
Selman v. Cobb County
In Selman v. Cobb County, a United States District Court rules that the stickers placed on science books by a Georgia school district stating that "evolution is a theory, not a fact" represent a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Terri Schiavo Passes Away
Terri Schiavo dies thirteen days after the removal of the feeding tubes that have kept her alive in a "persistent vegetative state" since 1990. In a protracted court battle over the custody and care of Shiavo, both sides argue that the First Amendment is being violated.
Kitzmiller v. Dover
In Kitzmiller v. Dover, a United States District Court rules that a Pennsylvania school district’s "intelligent design policy" violates the First Amendment. Under this policy, district teachers are required to inform students of the "gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory," and they are required to introduce "other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design."