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Example: In 1971, the Nixon Administration tried to prevent the New York Times from publishing classified documents called the Pentagon Papers that detailed how the government waged the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court argued that the government could not block the publication of the Pentagon Papers because otherwise the government would be determining what newspapers can and cannot publish.

Freedom of Religion

The First Amendment includes two clauses that ensure freedom of religion:

  1. The free exercise clause: Congress cannot forbid the practice of any religions.
  2. The establishment clause: Congress cannot make laws that establish specific religions as state religions.

Separation of Church and State

Thomas Jefferson interpreted the establishment clause to mean that there needs to be a “wall of separation between Church and State.” The courts have interpreted the clause to mean the following:

  • The government cannot set up a church.
  • The government cannot aid one religion or prefer one religion over another.

Government Aid to Religious Schools

Many of the recent conflicts over the establishment clause have concerned the role of religion in government-funded schools. In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Supreme Court held that the government cannot give money directly to religious schools. The Court developed the three-part Lemon test to determine the situations in which the government may give money to religious institutions. The government can only fund religious schools if the aid money follows these three conditions:

  1. It will be used for secular purposes.
  2. It will not be used to advance or inhibit religion.
  3. It will not be used to encourage the government to become involved with the religion.

School Vouchers

A recent controversy over the establishment clause concerns school vouchers, government money given to parents to help pay for tuition at private schools. Some states and municipalities have created voucher programs to help parents get their children out of poorly performing public schools. Opponents of the program argue that voucher programs violate the Lemon test by inadvertently funding religious schools, because many parents choose to send their children to private religious schools. In a 2002 case, the Supreme Court ruled that voucher programs do not violate the establishment clause because parents could use them to send their children to secular private schools.

School Prayer

In the landmark Engel v. Vitale case in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer in public schools violates the establishment clause and is therefore illegal. The Court rejected all school prayer, even general prayers that do not name a specific deity or propose a particular belief. Nevertheless, the Court has also ruled that religious clubs and organizations can meet on school property, as long as no student is required to attend. The Court has also held that schools cannot begin graduation ceremonies or school events with a prayer.

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