Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
[F]or the men who wrote the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment the ‘establishment’ of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity. 1
[The] Court has long held that the First Amendment reaches more than classic, 18th-century establishments. 2 However, the Court’s reading of the clause has never resulted in the barring of all assistance that aids, however incidentally, a religious institution. Outside this area, the decisions generally have more rigorously prohibited what may be deemed governmental promotion of religious doctrine. 3
Financial Assistance to Church-Related Institutions
The Court’s first opportunity to rule on the validity of governmental financial assistance to a religiously affiliated institution occurred in 1899, the assistance being a federal grant for the construction of a wing of a hospital owned and operated by a Roman Catholic order that was to be devoted to the care of the poor. The Court viewed the hospital primarily as a secular institution so chartered by Congress and not as a religious or sectarian body, and thus avoided the constitutional issue. 4 But, when the right of local authorities to provide free transportation for children attending parochial schools reached the Court, it adopted a very broad view of the restrictions imposed by the Establishment Clause.
The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State.' 5
But, despite this interpretation, the majority sustained the provision of transportation. Although recognizing that
it approaches the verge of the state’s constitutional power, Justice Black found that the transportation was a form of
public welfare legislation that was being extended
to all its citizens without regard to their religious belief. 6
It is undoubtedly true that children are helped to get to church schools. There is even a possibility that some of the children might not be sent to the church schools if the parents were compelled to pay their children’s bus fares out of their own pockets when transportation to a public school would have been paid for by the State. 7 Transportation benefited the child, just as did police protection at crossings, fire protection, connections for sewage disposal, public highways and sidewalks. Thus was born the
child benefit theory. 8
The Court in 1968 relied on the
child benefit theory to sustain state loans of textbooks to parochial school students. 9 Using the secular purpose and effect tests, 10 the Court determined that the purpose of the loans was the
furtherance of the educational opportunities available to the young, while the effect was hardly less secular.
The law merely makes available to all children the benefits of a general program to lend school books free of charge. Books are furnished at the request of the pupil and ownership remains, at least technically, in the state. Thus no funds or books are furnished to parochial schools, and the financial benefit is to parents and children, not to schools. Perhaps free books make it more likely that some children choose to attend a sectarian school, but that was true of the state-paid bus fares in Everson and does not alone demonstrate an unconstitutional degree of support for a religious institution. 11
From these beginnings, the case law on the discretion of state and federal governmental assistance to sectarian elementary and secondary schools as well as other religious entities has multiplied. Through the 1970s, at least, the law became as restrictive in fact as the dicta in the early cases suggested, except for the provision of some assistance to children under the
child benefit theory. Since that time, the Court has gradually adopted a more accommodating approach. It has upheld direct aid programs that have been of only marginal benefit to the religious mission of the recipient elementary and secondary schools, tax benefit and scholarship aid programs where the schools have received the assistance as the result of the independent decisions of the parents or students who initially receive the aid, and in its most recent decisions direct aid programs which substantially benefit the educational function of such schools. Indeed, in its most recent decisions the Court has overturned several of the most restrictive school aid precedents from its earlier jurisprudence. Throughout, the Court has allowed greater discretion with respect to aid programs benefiting religiously affiliated colleges and social services agencies.
A secular purpose is the first requirement of the Lemon tripartite test to sustain the validity of legislation touching upon religion, and upon this standard the Justices display little disagreement. There are adequate legitimate, non-sectarian bases for legislation to assist nonpublic, religious schools: preservation of a healthy and safe educational environment for all school children, promotion of pluralism and diversity among public and nonpublic schools, and prevention of overburdening of the public school system that would accompany the financial failure of private schools. 12
The primary secular effect and no excessive entanglement aspects of the Lemon test, however, have proven much more divisive. As a consequence, the Court’s applications of these tests have not always been consistent, and the rules guiding their application have not always been easy to decipher. Moreover, in its most recent decisions the Court has substantially modified the strictures these tests have previously imposed on public aid to pervasively sectarian entities.
In applying the primary effect and excessive entanglement tests, the Court has drawn a distinction between public aid programs that directly aid sectarian entities and those that do so only indirectly. Aid provided directly, the Court has said, must be limited to secular use lest it have a primary effect of advancing religion. The Establishment Clause
absolutely prohibit[s] government-financed or government-sponsored indoctrination into the beliefs of a particular religious faith. 13 The government may provide direct support to the secular services and programs sponsored by religious entities, but it cannot directly subsidize such organizations’ religious activities or proselytizing. 14 Thus, the Court struck down as unconstitutional a program providing grants for the maintenance and repair of sectarian elementary and secondary school facilities, because the grants had no restrictions to prevent their use for such purposes as defraying the costs of building or maintaining chapels or classrooms in which religion is taught. 15 It also struck down a program subsidizing field trip transportation for children attending sectarian elementary and secondary schools, because field trips are inevitably interwoven with the schools’ educational functions. 16
But the Court has not imposed a secular use limitation on aid programs that benefit sectarian entities only indirectly, i.e., as the result of decisions by someone other than the government itself. The initial beneficiaries of the public aid must be determined on the basis of religiously neutral criteria, and they must have a genuine choice about whether to use the aid at sectarian or nonsectarian entities. But, where those standards have been met, the Court has upheld indirect aid programs even though the sectarian institutions that ultimately benefit may use the aid for religious purposes. Moreover, the Court has gradually broadened its understanding of what constitutes a genuine choice so that now most voucher or tax benefit programs benefiting the parents of children attending sectarian schools seem able to pass constitutional muster.
Thus, the Court initially struck down tax benefit and educational voucher programs where the initial beneficiaries were limited to the universe of parents of children attending sectarian schools and where the aid, as a consequence, was virtually certain to go to sectarian schools. 17 Subsequently, however, it upheld a state program that allowed taxpayers to take a deduction from their gross income for educational expenses, including tuition, incurred in sending their children to public or private schools, because the deduction was
available for educational expenses incurred by all parents and the aid became available to sectarian schools
only as a result of numerous, private choices of individual parents of school-age children. 18 It upheld for the same reasons a vocational rehabilitation program that made a grant to a blind person for training at a Bible college for a religious vocation 19 and another program that provided a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student attending a sectarian secondary school. 20 Most recently, it upheld as constitutional a tuition voucher program made available to the parents of children attending failing public schools, notwithstanding that most of the private schools at which the vouchers could be used were sectarian in nature. 21 Whether the parents had a genuine choice among religious and secular options in using the vouchers, the Court said, had to be evaluated on the basis not only of the private schools where the vouchers could be redeemed but also by examining the full range of educational options open to them, including various public school options.
In applying the primary effect and excessive entanglement tests, the Court has also, until recently, drawn a distinction between religious institutions that are pervasively sectarian and those that are not. Organizations that are permeated by a religious purpose and character in all that they do have often been held by the Court to be constitutionally ineligible for direct public aid. Direct aid to religion-dominated institutions inevitably violates the primary effect test, the Court has said, because such aid generally cannot be limited to secular use in such entities and, as a consequence, it has a primary effect of advancing religion. 22 Moreover, any effort to limit the use of public aid by such entities to secular use inevitably falls afoul of the excessive entanglement test, according to the Court, because the risk of diversion of the aid to religious use is so great that it necessitates an intrusive government monitoring. 23 But, direct aid to religious entities that are not pervasively sectarian, the Court held, is constitutionally permissible, because the secular functions of such entities can be distinguished from their religious ones for purposes of public aid and because the risk of diversion of the aid to religious use is attenuated and does not require an intrusive government monitoring. As a practical matter, this distinction has had its most serious consequences for programs providing aid directly to sectarian elementary and secondary schools, because the Court has, until recently, presumed such schools to be pervasively sectarian and direct aid, as a consequence, to be severely limited. 24 The Court has presumed to the contrary with respect to religiously affiliated colleges, hospitals, and social services providers; and as a consequence it has found direct aid programs to such entities to be permissible. 25
In its most recent decisions the Court has modified both the primary effect and excessive entanglement prongs of the Lemon test as they apply to aid programs directly benefiting sectarian elementary and secondary schools; and in so doing it has overturned several prior decisions imposing tight constraints on aid to pervasively sectarian institutions. In Agostini v. Felton 26 the Court, in a 5-4 decision, abandoned the presumptions that public school teachers giving instruction on the premises of sectarian elementary and secondary schools will be so affected by the religiosity of the environment that they will inculcate religion and that, consequently, an excessively entangling monitoring of their services is constitutionally necessary. In Mitchell v. Helms, 27 in turn, the Court abandoned the presumptions that such schools are so pervasively sectarian that their secular educational functions cannot be differentiated from their religious educational functions and that direct aid to their educational functions, consequently, violates the Establishment Clause. In reaching these conclusions and upholding the aid programs in question, the Court overturned its prior decision in Aguilar v. Felton 28 and parts of its decisions in Meek v. Pittenger, 29 Wolman v. Walter, 30 and Grand Rapids School District v. Ball. 31
Thus, the Court’s jurisprudence concerning public aid to sectarian organizations has evolved, particularly as it concerns public aid to sectarian elementary and secondary schools. That evolution has given some uncertainty to the rules that apply to any given form of aid; and in both Agostini v. Felton 32 and Mitchell v. Helms 33 the Court left open the possibility of a further evolution in its thinking. Nonetheless, the cases give substantial guidance.
State aid to church-connected schools was first found to have gone over the
verge 34 in Lemon v. Kurtzman. 35 The Court struck down two state statutes, one of which authorized the
purchase of secular educational services from nonpublic elementary and secondary schools, a form of reimbursement for the cost to religious schools of the teaching of such things as mathematics, modern foreign languages, and physical sciences, and the other of which provided salary supplements to nonpublic school teachers who taught courses similar to those found in public schools, used textbooks approved for use in public schools, and agreed not to teach any classes in religion. Accepting the secular purpose attached to both statutes by the legislature, the Court did not pass on the secular effect test, but found excessive entanglement. This entanglement arose because the legislature
has not, and could not, provide state aid on the basis of a mere assumption that secular teachers under religious discipline can avoid conflicts. The State must be certain, given the Religion Clauses, that subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion . . . . 36 Because the schools concerned were religious schools, because they were under the control of the church hierarchy, and because the primary purpose of the schools was the propagation of the faith, a
comprehensive, discriminating, and continuing state surveillance will inevitably be required to ensure that these restrictions [on religious use of aid] are obeyed and the First Amendment otherwise respected. 37 Moreover, the provision of public aid inevitably will draw religious conflict into the public arena as the contest for adequate funding goes on. Thus, the Court held, both programs were unconstitutional because the state supervision necessary to ensure a secular purpose and a secular effect inevitably involved the state authorities too deeply in the religious affairs of the aided institutions. 38
Two programs of assistance through the provision of equipment and services to private, including sectarian, schools were invalidated in Meek v. Pittenger. 39 First, the loan of instructional material and equipment directly to nonpublic elementary and secondary schools was voided as constituting impermissible assistance to religion. This holding was based on the fact that 75 percent of the qualifying schools were church-related or religiously affiliated educational institutions, and that the assistance was available without regard to the degree of religious activity of the schools. The materials and equipment loaned were religiously neutral, but the substantial assistance necessarily constituted aid to the sectarian school enterprise as a whole and thus had a primary effect of advancing religion. 40 Second, the provision of auxiliary services – remedial and accelerated instruction, guidance counseling and testing, speech and hearing services – by public employees on nonpublic school premises was invalidated because the Court found that, even though the teachers under this program – unlike those under one of the programs struck down in Lemon v. Kurtzman – were public employees rather than employees of the religious schools, the continuing surveillance necessary to ensure that the teachers remained religiously neutral gave rise to a constitutionally intolerable degree of entanglement between church and state. 41
In two 1985 cases, the Court again struck down programs of public subsidy of instructional services provided on the premises of sectarian schools, and relied on the effects test as well as the entanglement test. In Grand Rapids School District v. Ball, 42 the Court invalidated two programs conducted in leased private school classrooms, one taught during the regular school day by public school teachers, 43 and the other taught after regular school hours by part-time
public teachers otherwise employed as full-time teachers by the sectarian school. 44 Both programs, the Court held, had the effect of promoting religion in three distinct ways. The teachers might be influenced by the
pervasively sectarian nature of the environment and might
subtly or overtly indoctrinate the students in particular religious tenets at public expense; use of the parochial school classrooms
threatens to convey a message of state support for religion through
the symbolic union of government and religion in one sectarian enterprise; and
the programs in effect subsidize the religious functions of the parochial schools by taking over a substantial portion of their responsibility for teaching secular subjects. 45 In Aguilar v. Felton, 46 the Court invalidated a program under which public school employees provided instructional services on parochial school premises to educationally deprived children. The program differed from those at issue in Grand Rapids because the classes were closely monitored for religious content. This
pervasive monitoring did not save the program, however, because, by requiring close cooperation and day-to-day contact between public and secular authorities, the monitoring
infringes precisely those Establishment Clause values at the root of the prohibition of excessive entanglement. 47
A state program to reimburse nonpublic schools for a variety of services mandated by state law was voided because the statute did not distinguish between secular and potentially religious services, the costs of which the state would reimburse. 48 Similarly, a program of direct monetary grants to nonpublic schools to be used for the maintenance of school facilities and equipment failed to survive the primary effect test because it did not restrict payment to those expenditures related to the upkeep of facilities used exclusively for secular purposes and because
within the context of these religion-oriented institutions the Court could not see how such restrictions could effectively be imposed. 49 But a plan of direct monetary grants to nonpublic schools to reimburse them for the costs of state-mandated record-keeping and of administering and grading state-prepared tests and that contained safeguards against religious use of the tests was sustained even though the Court recognized the incidental benefit to the schools. 50
child benefit theory, under which it is permissible for government to render ideologically neutral assistance and services to pupils in sectarian schools without being deemed to be aiding the religious mission of the schools, has not proved easy to apply. Several different forms of assistance to students were at issue in Wolman v. Walter. 51 The Court approved the following: standardized tests and scoring services used in the public schools, with private school personnel not involved in the test drafting and scoring; speech, hearing, and psychological diagnostic services provided in the private schools by public employees; and therapeutic, guidance, and remedial services for students provided off the premises of the private schools. In all these, the Court thought the program contained adequate built-in protections against religious use. But, though the Court adhered to its ruling permitting the states to lend secular textbooks used in the public schools to pupils attending religious schools, 52 it declined to extend the precedent to permit the states to lend to pupils or their parents instructional materials and equipment, such as projectors, tape recorders, maps, globes and science kits, even though the materials and equipment were identical to those used in the public schools. 53 Nor was a state permitted to pay the costs to religious schools of field trip transportation, such as it did to public school students. 54
The Court’s later decisions, however, rejected the reasoning and overturned the results of several of these decisions. In two rulings, the Court reversed course with respect to the constitutionality of public school personnel's providing educational services on the premises of pervasively sectarian schools. First, in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District 55 the Court held that the public subsidy of a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student attending a parochial school created no primary effect or entanglement problems. The payment did not relieve the school of an expense that it would otherwise have borne, the Court stated, and the interpreter had no role in selecting or editing the content of any of the lessons. Reviving the child benefit theory of its earlier cases, the Court wrote:
The service at issue in this case is part of a general government program that distributes benefits neutrally to any child qualifying as ‘disabled’ under the IDEA, without regard to the ‘sectarian-nonsectarian, or public-nonpublic nature’ of the school the child attends. 56
Second, and more pointedly, the Court in Agostini v. Felton 57 overturned its decision in Aguilar v. Felton, 58which had struck down the Title I program as administered in New York City, as well as the analogous parts of its decisions in Meek v. Pittenger 59 and Grand Rapids School District v. Ball. 60 The assumptions on which those decisions had rested, the Court stated, had been
undermined by its more recent decisions. Decisions such as Zobrest and Witters v. Washington Department of Social Services, 61 it said, had repudiated the notions that the placement of a public employee in a sectarian school creates an
impermissible symbolic link between government and religion, that
all government aid that directly aids the educational function of religious schools is constitutionally forbidden, that public teachers in a sectarian school necessarily pose a serious risk of inculcating religion, and that
pervasive monitoring of [such] teachers is required. The proper criterion under the primary effect prong of the Lemon test, the Court asserted, is religious neutrality, i.e., whether
aid is allocated on the basis of neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion, and is made available to both religious and secular beneficiaries on a nondiscriminatory basis. 62 Finding the Title I program to meet that test, the Court concluded that
accordingly, we must acknowledge that Aguilar, as well as the portion of Ball addressing Grand Rapids’ Shared Time program, are no longer good law. 63
Later, in Mitchell v. Helms 64 the Court abandoned the presumptions that religious elementary and secondary schools are so pervasively sectarian that they are constitutionally ineligible to participate in public aid programs directly benefiting their educational functions and that direct aid to such institutions must be subject to an intrusive and constitutionally fatal monitoring. At issue in the case was a federal program that distributed funds to local educational agencies to provide instructional materials and equipment, such as computer hardware and software, library books, movie projectors, television sets, VCRs, laboratory equipment, maps, and cassette recordings, to public and private elementary and secondary schools. Virtually identical programs had previously been held unconstitutional by the Court in Meek v. Pittenger 65 and Wolman v. Walter. 66 But in this case the Court overturned those decisions and held the program to be constitutional.
Mitchell had no majority opinion. The opinions of Justice Thomas, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Kennedy, and of Justice O’Connor, joined by Justice Breyer, found the program constitutional. They agreed that to pass muster under the primary effect prong of the Lemon test direct public aid has to be secular in nature and distributed on the basis of religiously neutral criteria. They also agreed, in contrast to past rulings, that sectarian elementary and secondary schools should not be deemed constitutionally ineligible for direct aid on the grounds that their secular educational functions are
inextricably intertwined with their religious educational functions, i.e., that they are pervasively sectarian. But their rationales for the program’s constitutionality then diverged. For Justice Thomas it was sufficient that the instructional materials were secular in nature and were distributed according to neutral criteria. It made no difference whether the schools used the aid for purposes of religious indoctrination or not. But that was not sufficient for Justice O’Connor. She adhered to the view that direct public aid has to be limited to secular use by the recipient institutions. She further asserted that a limitation to secular use could be honored by the teachers in the sectarian schools and that the risk that the aid would be used for religious purposes was not so great as to require an intrusive and entangling government monitoring. 67
Justice Souter, joined by Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, dissented on the grounds that the Establishment Clause bars
aid supporting a sectarian school’s religious exercise or the discharge of its religious mission. Adhering to the
substantive principle of no aid first articulated in Everson, he contended that direct aid to pervasively sectarian institutions inevitably results in the diversion of the aid for purposes of religious indoctrination. He further argued that the aid in this case had been so diverted.
As the opinion upholding the program’s constitutionality on the narrowest grounds, Justice O’Connor’s provides the most current guidance on the standards governing the constitutionality of aid programs directly benefiting sectarian elementary and secondary schools.
The Court has similarly loosened the constitutional restrictions on public aid programs indirectly benefiting sectarian elementary and secondary schools. Initially, the Court in 1973 struck down substantially similar programs in New York and Pennsylvania providing for tuition reimbursement to parents of religious school children. New York’s program provided reimbursements out of general tax revenues for tuition paid by low-income parents to send their children to nonpublic elementary and secondary schools; the reimbursements were of fixed amounts but could not exceed 50 percent of actual tuition paid. Pennsylvania provided fixed-sum reimbursement for parents who sent their children to nonpublic elementary and secondary schools, so long as the amount paid did not exceed actual tuition, the funds to be derived from cigarette tax revenues. Both programs, it was held, constituted public financial assistance to sectarian institutions with no attempt to segregate the benefits so that religion was not advanced. 68
New York had also enacted a separate program providing tax relief for low-income parents who did not qualify for the tuition reimbursements; here relief was in the form of a deduction or credit bearing no relationship to the amounts of tuition paid, but keyed instead to adjusted gross income. This too was invalidated in Nyquist.
In practical terms there would appear to be little difference, for purposes of determining whether such aid has the effect of advancing religion, between the tax benefit allowed here and the tuition [reimbursement] grant. . . . The qualifying parent under either program receives the same form of encouragement and reward for sending his children to nonpublic schools. The only difference is that one parent receives an actual cash payment while the other is allowed to reduce by an arbitrary amount the sum he would otherwise be obliged to pay over to the State. We see no answer to Judge Hays' dissenting statement below that '[i]n both instances the money involved represents a charge made upon the state for the purpose of religious education.' 69 Some difficulty, however, was experienced in distinguishing this program from the tax exemption approved in Walz. 70
The Court rejected two subsidiary arguments in these cases. The first, in the New York case, was that the tuition reimbursement program promoted the free exercise of religion in that it permitted low-income parents desiring to send their children to school in accordance with their religious views to do so. The Court agreed that
tension inevitably exists between the Free Exercise and the Establishment Clauses, but explained that the tension is ordinarily resolved through application of the
neutrality principle: government may neither advance nor inhibit religion. The tuition program inescapably advanced religion and thereby violated this principle. 71 The second subsidiary argument that the Court rejected was that, because the Pennsylvania program reimbursed parents who sent their children to nonsectarian schools as well as to sectarian ones, the portion respecting the former parents was valid and
parents of children who attended sectarian schools are entitled to the same aid as a matter of equal protection. 72 The Court found the argument
thoroughly spurious, adding,
The Equal Protection Clause has never been regarded as a bludgeon with which to compel a State to violate other provisions of the Constitution. 73
In 1983, the Court clarified the limits of the Nyquist holding. In Mueller v. Allen, 74 the Court upheld a Minnesota deduction from state income tax available to parents of elementary and secondary school children for expenses incurred in providing tuition, transportation, textbooks, and various other school supplies. Because the Minnesota deduction was available to parents of public and private schoolchildren alike, the Court termed it
vitally different from the scheme struck down in Nyquist, and more similar to the benefits upheld in Everson and Allen as available to all schoolchildren. 75 The Court declined to look behind the
facial neutrality of the law and consider empirical evidence of its actual impact, citing a need for
certainty and the lack of
principled standards by which to evaluate such evidence. 76 Also important to the Court’s refusal to consider the alleged disproportionate benefits to parents of parochial school children was the assertion 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. 77
A second factor important in Mueller, which had been present but not controlling in Nyquist, was that the financial aid was provided to the parents of schoolchildren rather than to the school. In the Court's view, therefore, the aid was
attenuated rather than direct; because it was
available only as a result of decisions of individual parents, there was no
imprimatur of state approval. The Court noted that, with the exception of Nyquist,
all . . . of our recent cases invalidating state aid to parochial schools have involved the direct transmission of assistance from the State to the schools themselves. 78 Thus, Mueller apparently stands for the proposition that state subsidies of tuition expenses at sectarian schools are permissible if contained in a facially neutral scheme providing benefits, at least nominally, to parents of public and private schoolchildren alike.
The Court confirmed this proposition three years later in Witters v. Washington Department of Social Services for the Blind. 79 At issue was the constitutionality of a grant made by a state vocational rehabilitation program to a blind person who wanted to use the grant to attend a religious school and train for a religious ministry. Again, the Court emphasized that, in the vocational rehabilitation program
any aid provided is ‘made available without regard to the sectarian-nonsectarian, or public-nonpublic nature of the institution benefited’ and
ultimately flows to religious institutions . . . only as a result of the genuinely independent and private choices of aid recipients. 80 The program, the Court stated, did not have the purpose of providing support for nonpublic, sectarian institutions; created no financial incentive for students to undertake religious education; and gave recipients
full opportunity to expend vocational rehabiiltation aid on wholly secular education.
In this case, the Court found,
the fact that the aid goes to individuals means that the decision to support religious education is made by the individual, not by the State. Finally, the Court concluded, there was no evidence that
any significant portion of the aid expended under the Washington program as a whole will end up flowing to religious education. 81
In Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District 82 the Court reaffirmed this line of reasoning. The case involved the provision of a sign language interpreter pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 83 to a deaf high school student who wanted to attend a Catholic high school. In upholding the assistance as constitutional, the Court emphasized that
[t]he service at issue in this case is part of a general government program that distributes benefits neutrally to any child qualifying as ‘disabled’ under the IDEA, without regard to the ‘sectarian-nonsectarian, or public-nonpublic nature’ of the school the child attends. Thus, it held that the presence of the interpreter in the sectarian school resulted not from a decision of the state but from the
private decision of individual parents. 84
Finally, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris 85 the Court reinterpreted the genuine private choice criterion in a manner that seems to render most voucher programs constitutional. At issue was an Ohio program that provided vouchers to the parents of children in failing public schools in Cleveland for use at private schools in the city. The Court upheld the program notwithstanding that, as in Nyquist, most of the schools at which the vouchers could be redeemed were religious and most of the voucher students attended such schools. But the Court found that the program nevertheless involved
true private choice. 86
Cleveland schoolchildren, the Court said,
enjoy a range of educational choices: They may remain in public school as before, remain in public school with publicly funded tutoring aid, obtain a scholarship and choose a religious school, obtain a scholarship and choose a nonreligious private school, enroll in a community school, or enroll in a magnet school. That 46 of the 56 private schools now participating in the program are religious schools does not condemn it as a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause question is whether Ohio is coercing parents into sending their children to religious schools, and that question must be answered by evaluating all options Ohio provides Cleveland schoolchildren, only one of which is to obtain a program scholarship and then choose a religious school. 87
In contrast to its rulings concerning direct aid to sectarian elementary and secondary schools, the Court, although closely divided at times, has from the start approved quite extensive public assistance to institutions of higher learning. On the same day that it first struck down an assistance program for elementary and secondary private schools, the Court sustained construction grants to church-related colleges and universities. 88 The specific grants in question were for the construction of two library buildings, a science building, a music, drama, and arts building, and a language laboratory. The law prohibited the financing of any facility for, or the use of any federally financed building for, religious purposes, although the restriction on use ran for only twenty years. 89 The Court found that the purpose and effect of the grants were secular and that, unlike elementary and secondary schools, religious colleges were not so devoted to inculcating religion. 90 The supervision required to ensure conformance with the non-religious-use requirement was found not to constitute
excessive entanglement, inasmuch as a building is nonideological in character, and the construction grants were onetime rather than continuing.
Also sustained was a South Carolina program under which a state authority would issue revenue bonds for construction projects on campuses of private colleges and universities. The Court did not decide whether this special form of assistance could be otherwise sustained, because it concluded that religion was neither advanced nor inhibited; nor was there any impermissible public entanglement.
Aid normally may be thought to have a primary effect of advancing religion when it flows to an institution in which religion is so pervasive that a substantial portion of its functions are subsumed in the religious mission or when it funds a specifically religious activity in an otherwise substantially secular setting. 91 The colleges involved, though affiliated with religious institutions, were not shown to be too pervasively religious – no religious qualifications existed for faculty or student body, a substantial part of the student body was not of the religion of the affiliation, and state rules precluded the use of any state-financed project for religious activities. 92
The kind of assistance permitted by Tilton and by Hunt v. McNair seems to have been broadened when the Court sustained a Maryland program of annual subsidies to qualifying private institutions of higher education; the grants were noncategorical but could not be used for sectarian purposes, a limitation to be policed by the administering agency. 93 The plurality opinion found a secular purpose; found that the limitation of funding to secular activities was meaningful, 94 since the religiously affiliated institutions were not so pervasively sectarian that secular activities could not be separated from sectarian ones; and determined that excessive entanglement was improbable, given the fact that aided institutions were not pervasively sectarian. The annual nature of the subsidy was recognized as posing the danger of political entanglement, but the plurality thought that the character of the aided institutions –
capable of separating secular and religious functions – was more important. 95
Finally, in the first case since Bradfield v. Roberts 96 to challenge the constitutionality of public aid to non-educational religious institutions, the Court in Bowen v. Kendrick, 97 by a 5-4 vote, upheld the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) 98 against facial challenge. The Act permits direct grants to religious organizations for the provision of health care and for counseling of adolescents on matters of pregnancy prevention and abortion alternatives, and requires grantees to involve other community groups, including religious organizations, in the delivery of services. All the Justices agreed that AFLA had valid secular purposes; their disagreement related to application of the effects and entanglement tests. The Court relied on analogy to the higher education cases rather than to the cases involving aid to elementary and secondary schools. 99 The case presented conflicting factual considerations. On the one hand, the class of beneficiaries was broad, with religious groups not predominant among the wide range of eligible community organizations. On the other hand, there were analogies to the parochial school aid cases: secular and religious teachings might easily be mixed, and the age of the targeted group (adolescents) suggested susceptibility. The Court resolved these conflicts by holding that AFLA is facially valid, there being insufficient indication that a significant proportion of the AFLA funds would be disbursed to
pervasively sectarian institutions, but by remanding to the district court to determine whether particular grants to pervasively sectarian institutions were invalid. The Court emphasized in both parts of its opinion that the fact that
views espoused [during counseling] on matters of premarital sex, abortion, and the like happen to coincide with the religious views of the AFLA grantee would not be sufficient to show [an Establishment Clause violation]. 100
At the time it was rendered, Bowen differed from the Court’s decisions concerning direct aid to sectarian elementary and secondary schools primarily in that it refused to presume that religiously affiliated social welfare entities are pervasively sectarian. That difference had the effect of giving greater constitutional latitude to public aid to such entities than was afforded direct aid to religious elementary and secondary schools. As noted above, the Court in its recent decisions eliminated the presumption that such religious schools are pervasively sectarian and has extended the same constitutional latitude to aid programs benefiting such schools as it gives to aid programs benefiting religiously affiliated social welfare programs.
Governmental Encouragement of Religion in Public Schools: Released Time
Introduction of religious education into the public schools, one of Justice Rutledge’s
great drives, 101 has also occasioned a substantial amount of litigation in the Court. In its first two encounters, the Court voided one program and upheld another, in which the similarities were at least as significant as the differences. Both cases involved
released time programs, the establishing of a period during which pupils in public schools were to be allowed, upon parental request, to receive religious instruction. In the first, the religious classes were conducted during regular school hours in the school building by outside teachers furnished by a religious council representing the various faiths, subject to the approval or supervision of the superintendent of schools. Attendance reports were kept and reported to the school authorities in the same way as for other classes, and pupils not attending the religious instruction classes were required to continue their regular studies.
The operation of the State’s compulsory education system thus assists and is integrated with the program of religious instruction carried on by separate religious sects. Pupils compelled by law to go to school for secular education are released in part from their legal duty upon the condition that they attend the religious classes. This is beyond all question a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith. And it falls squarely under the ban of the First Amendment . . . . 102 The case was also noteworthy because of the Court’s express rejection of the contention
that historically the First Amendment was intended to forbid only government preference of one religion over another, not an impartial governmental assistance of all religions. 103
Four years later, the Court upheld a different released-time program. 104 In this one, schools released pupils during school hours, on written request of their parents, so that they might leave the school building and go to religious centers for religious instruction or devotional exercises. The churches reported to the schools the names of children released from the public schools who did not report for religious instruction; children not released remained in the classrooms for regular studies. The Court found the differences between this program and the program struck down in McCollum to be constitutionally significant. Unlike McCollum, where
the classrooms were used for religious instruction and force of the public school was used to promote that instruction, religious instruction was conducted off school premises and
the public schools do no more than accommodate their schedules. 105
We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being, Justice Douglas wrote for the Court.
When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.
Governmental Encouragement of Religion in Public Schools: Prayers and Bible Reading
Upon recommendation of the state governing board, a local New York school required each class to begin each school day by reading aloud the following prayer in the presence of the teacher:
Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessing upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Students who wished to do so could remain silent or leave the room. The Court wrote:
We think that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity. . . . [W]e think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government. 106
Neither the fact that the prayer may be denominationally neutral nor the fact that its observance on the part of the students is voluntary can serve to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause, as it might from the Free Exercise Clause. . . . The Establishment Clause . . . does not depend upon any showing of direct governmental compulsion and is violated by the enactment of laws which establish an official religion whether those laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not. 107
Following the prayer decision came two cases in which parents and their school age children challenged the validity under the Establishment Clause of requirements that each school day begin with readings of selections from the Bible. Scripture reading, like prayers, the Court found, was a religious exercise.
Given that finding the exercises and the law requiring them are in violation of the Establishment Clause. 108 Rejected were contentions by the state that the object of the programs was the promotion of secular purposes, such as the expounding of moral values, the contradiction of the materialistic trends of the times, the perpetuation of traditional institutions, and the teaching of literature 109 and that to forbid the particular exercises was to choose a
religion of secularism in their place. 110 Though the
place of religion in our society is an exalted one, the Establishment Clause, the Court continued, prescribed that in
the relationship between man and religion, the state must be
firmly committed to a position of neutrality. 111
In Wallace v. Jaffree, 112 the Court held invalid an Alabama statute authorizing a 1-minute period of silence in all public schools
for meditation or prayer. Because the only evidence in the record indicated that the words
or prayer had been added to the existing statute by amendment for the sole purpose of returning voluntary prayer to the public schools, the Court found that the first prong of the Lemon test had been violated, i.e., that the statute was invalid as being entirely motivated by a purpose of advancing religion. The Court characterized the legislative intent to return prayer to the public schools as
quite different from merely protecting every student’s right to engage in voluntary prayer during an appropriate moment of silence during the schoolday, 113 and both Justices Powell and O’Connor in concurring opinions suggested that other state statutes authorizing moments of silence might pass constitutional muster. 114
The school prayer decisions served as precedent for the Court’s holding in Lee v. Weisman 115 that a school-sponsored invocation at a high school commencement violated the Establishment Clause. The Court rebuffed a request to reexamine the Lemon test, finding
[t]he government involvement with religious activity in this case [to be] pervasive, to the point of creating a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school. State officials not only determined that an invocation and benediction should be given, but also selected the religious participant and provided him with guidelines for the content of nonsectarian prayers. The Court, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, viewed this state participation as coercive in the elementary and secondary school setting. 116 The state
in effect required participation in a religious exercise, since the option of not attending
one of life’s most significant occasions was no real choice.
At a minimum, the Court concluded, the Establishment Clause
guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise.
In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe 117 the Court held a school district's policy permitting high school students to vote on whether to have an
invocation and/or prayer delivered prior to home football games by a student elected for that purpose to violate the Establishment Clause. It found the policy to violate each of the tests it has formulated for Establishment Clause cases. The preference given for an
invocation in the text of the school district’s policy, the long history of pre-game prayer led by a student
chaplain in the school district, and the widespread perception that
the policy is about prayer, the Court said, made clear that its purpose was not secular but was to preserve a popular state-sponsored religious practice in violation of the first prong of the Lemon test. Moreover, it said, the policy violated the coercion test by forcing unwilling students into participating in a religious exercise. Some students – the cheerleaders, the band, football players – had to attend, it noted, and others were compelled to do so by peer pressure.
The constitutional command will not permit the District 'to exact religious conformity from a student as the price' of joining her classmates at a varsity football game, the Court held. 118 Finally, it said, the speech sanctioned by the policy was not private speech but government-sponsored speech that would be perceived as a government endorsement of religion. The long history of pre-game prayer, the bias toward religion in the policy itself, the fact that the message would be
delivered to a large audience assembled as part of a regularly scheduled, school-sponsored function conducted on school property 119 and over the school's public address system, the Court asserted, all meant that the speech was not genuine private speech but would be perceived as
stamped with [the] school’s seal of approval. 120 The Court concluded that
[t]he policy is invalid on its face because it establishes an improper majoritarian election on religion, and unquestionably has the purpose and creates the perception of encouraging the delivery of prayer at a series of important school events. 121
Governmental Encouragement of Religion in Public Schools: Curriculum Restriction
In Epperson v. Arkansas, 122 the Court struck down a state statute that made it unlawful for any teacher in any state-supported educational institution
to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals, or
to adopt or use in any such institution a textbook that teaches this theory. Agreeing that control of the curriculum of the public schools was largely in the control of local officials, the Court nonetheless held that the motivation of the statute was a fundamentalist belief in the literal reading of the Book of Genesis and that this motivation and result required the voiding of the law.
The law’s effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read. Plainly, the law is contrary to the mandate of the First . . . Amendment to the Constitution. 123
Similarly invalidated as having the improper purpose of advancing religion was a Louisiana statute mandating balanced treatment of
evolution-science in the public schools.
The preeminent purpose of the Louisiana legislature, the Court found in Edwards v. Aguillard,
was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind. 124 The Court viewed as a
sham the stated purpose of protecting academic freedom, and concluded instead that the legislature’s purpose was to narrow the science curriculum in order to discredit evolution
by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creation science. 125
Access of Religious Groups to Public Property
Although government may not promote religion through its educational facilities, it may not bar student religious groups from meeting on public school property if it makes its facilities available to nonreligious student groups. In Widmar v. Vincent, 126 the Court held that allowing student religious groups equal access to a public college’s facilities would further a secular purpose, would not constitute an impermissible benefit to religion, and would pose little hazard of entanglement. Subsequently, the Court held that these principles apply to public secondary schools as well as to institutions of higher learning. In 1990, in Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens, 127 the Court upheld application of the Equal Access Act 128 to prevent a secondary school from denying access to school premises to a student religious club while granting access to such other
noncurriculum related student groups as a scuba diving club, a chess club, and a service club. 129 Justice O’Connor stated in a plurality opinion that
there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion and private speech endorsing religion. We think that secondary school students are mature enough and are likely to understand that a school does not endorse or support student speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis. 130
Similarly, public schools may not rely on the Establishment Clause as grounds to discriminate against religious groups in after-hours use of school property otherwise available for non-religious social, civic, and recreational purposes. In Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, 131 the Court held that a school district could not, consistent with the free speech clause, refuse to allow a religious group to use school facilities to show a film series on family life when the facilities were otherwise available for community use.
It discriminates on the basis of viewpoint, the Court ruled,
to permit school property to be used for the presentation of all views about family issues and child-rearing except those dealing with the subject matter from a religious viewpoint. In response to the school district’s claim that the Establishment Clause required it to deny use of its facilities to a religious group, the Court said that there was
no realistic danger in this instance that
the community would think that the District was endorsing religion or any particular creed and that such permission would satisfy the requirements of the Lemon test. 132 Similarly, in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 133 the Court held the free speech clause to be violated by a school policy that barred a religious children’s club from meeting on school premises after school. Given that other groups teaching morals and character development to young children were allowed to use the school’s facilities, the exclusion, the Court said,
constitutes unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. Moreover, it said, the school had
no valid Establishment Clause interest because permitting the religious club to meet would not show any favoritism toward religion but would simply
Finally, the Court has made clear that public colleges may not exclude student religious organizations from benefits otherwise provided to a full spectrum of student
news, information, opinion, entertainment, or academic communications media groups. In Rosenberger v. Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, 134 the Court struck down a university policy that afforded a school subsidy to all student publications except religious ones. Once again, the Court held the denial of the subsidy to constitute viewpoint discrimination in violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment. In response to the University’s argument that the Establishment Clause required it not to subsidize an enterprise that promotes religion, the Court emphasized that the forum created by the University’s subsidy policy had neither the purpose nor the effect of advancing religion and, because it was open to a variety of viewpoints, was neutral toward religion.
These cases make clear that the Establishment Clause does not necessarily trump the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. In regulating private speech in a public forum, government may not justify discrimination against religious viewpoints as necessary to avoid creating an
establishment of religion.
Tax Exemptions of Religious Property
Every state and the District of Columbia provide for tax exemptions for religious institutions, and the history of such exemptions goes back to the time of our establishment as a polity. The only expression by a Supreme Court Justice prior to 1970 was by Justice Brennan, who deemed tax exemptions constitutional because the benefit conferred was incidental to the religious character of the institutions concerned. 135 Then, in 1970, a nearly unanimous Court sustained a state exemption from real or personal property taxation of
property used exclusively for religious, educational or charitable purposes owned by a corporation or association which was conducted exclusively for one or more of these purposes and did not operate for profit. 136 The first prong of a two-prong argument saw the Court adopting Justice Brennan’s rationale. Using the secular purpose and effect test, Chief Justice Burger noted that the purpose of the exemption was not to single out churches for special favor; instead, the exemption applied to a broad category of associations having many common features and all dedicated to social betterment. Thus, churches as well as museums, hospitals, libraries, charitable organizations, professional associations, and the like, all non-profit, and all having a beneficial and stabilizing influence in community life, were to be encouraged by being treated specially in the tax laws. The primary effect of the exemptions was not to aid religion; the primary effect was secular and any assistance to religion was merely incidental. 137
For the second prong, the Court created a new test, the entanglement test, 138 by which to judge the program. There was some entanglement whether there were exemptions or not, Chief Justice Burger continued, but with exemptions there was minimal involvement. But termination of exemptions would deeply involve government in the internal affairs of religious bodies, because evaluation of religious properties for tax purposes would be required and there would be tax liens and foreclosures and litigation concerning such matters. 139
Although the general issue is now settled, it is to be expected that variations of the exemption upheld in Walz will present the Court with an opportunity to elaborate the field still further. 140 For example, the Court determined that a sales tax exemption applicable only to religious publications constituted a violation of the Establishment Clause, 141 and, on the other hand, that application of a general sales and use tax provision to religious publications violates neither the Establishment Clause nor the Free Exercise Clause. 142
Exemption of Religious Organizations from Generally Applicable Laws
The Civil Rights Act's exemption of religious organizations from the prohibition against religious discrimination in employment 143 does not violate the Establishment Clause when applied to a religious organization’s secular, nonprofit activities. In Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos, 144 the Court held that a church-run gymnasium operated as a nonprofit facility open to the public could require that its employees be church members. Declaring that
there is ample room for accommodation of religion under the Establishment Clause, 145 the Court identified a legitimate purpose in freeing a religious organization from the burden of predicting which of its activities a court will consider to be secular and which religious. The rule applying across-the-board to nonprofit activities and thereby
avoid[ing] . . . intrusive inquiry into religious belief also serves to lessen entanglement of church and state. 146 The exemption itself does not have a principal effect of advancing religion, the Court concluded, but merely allows churches to advance religion. 147
Sunday Closing Laws
The history of Sunday Closing Laws goes back into United States colonial history and far back into English history. 148 Commonly, the laws require the observance of the Christian Sabbath as a day of rest, although in recent years they have tended to become honeycombed with exceptions. The Supreme Court rejected an Establishment Clause challenge to Sunday Closing Laws in McGowan v. Maryland. 149 The Court acknowledged that historically the laws had a religious motivation and were designed to effectuate concepts of Christian theology. However,
[i]n light of the evolution of our Sunday Closing Laws through the centuries, and of their more or less recent emphasis upon secular considerations, it is not difficult to discern that as presently written and administered, most of them, at least, are of a secular rather than of a religious character, and that presently they bear no relationship to establishment of religion. . . . 150
[T]he fact that this [prescribed day of rest] is Sunday, a day of particular significance for the dominant Christian sects, does not bar the State from achieving its secular goals. To say that the States cannot prescribe Sunday as a day of rest for these purposes solely because centuries ago such laws had their genesis in religion would give a constitutional interpretation of hostility to the public welfare rather than one of mere separation of church and State. 151 The choice of Sunday as the day of rest, although originally religious, now reflected simple legislative inertia or recognition that Sunday was a traditional day for the choice. 152 Valid secular reasons existed for not simply requiring one day of rest and leaving to each individual to choose the day, reasons of ease of enforcement and of assuring a common day in the community for rest and leisure. 153 Later, a state statute mandating that employers honor the Sabbath day of the employee’s choice was held invalid as having the primary effect of promoting religion by weighing the employee’s Sabbath choice over all other interests. 154
Historically, Congress has provided for alternative service for men who had religious scruples against participating in either combat activities or in all forms of military activities; the fact that Congress chose to draw the line of exemption on the basis of religious belief confronted the Court with a difficult constitutional question, which, however, the Court chose to avoid by a somewhat disingenuous interpretation of the statute. 155 In Gillette v. United States, 156 a further constitutional problem arose in which the Court did squarely confront and validate the congressional choice. Congress had restricted conscientious objection status to those who objected to
war in any form and the Court conceded that there were religious or conscientious objectors who were not opposed to all wars but only to particular wars based upon evaluation of a number of factors by which the
justness of any particular war could be judged;
properly construed, the Court said, the statute did draw a line relieving from military service some religious objectors while not relieving others. 157 Purporting to apply the secular purpose and effect test, the Court looked almost exclusively to purpose and hardly at all to effect. Although it is not clear, the Court seemed to require that a classification must be religiously based
on its face 158 or lack any
neutral, secular basis for the lines government has drawn 159 in order that it be held to violate the Establishment Clause. The classification here was not religiously based
on its face, and served
a number of valid purposes having nothing to do with a design to foster or favor any sect, religion, or cluster of religions. 160 These purposes, related to the difficulty in separating sincere conscientious objectors to particular wars from others with fraudulent claims, included the maintenance of a fair and efficient selective service system and protection of the integrity of democratic decision-making. 161
Regulation of Religious Solicitation
Although the solicitation cases have generally been decided under the free exercise or free speech clauses, 162 in one instance the Court, intertwining establishment and free exercise principles, voided a provision in a state charitable solicitations law that required only those religious organizations that received less than half their total contributions from members or affiliated organizations to comply with the registration and reporting sections of the law. 163 Applying strict scrutiny equal protection principles, the Court held that, by distinguishing between older, well-established churches that had strong membership financial support and newer bodies lacking a contributing constituency or that may favor public solicitation over general reliance on financial support from the members, the statute granted denominational preference forbidden by the Establishment Clause. 164
Religion in Governmental Observances
The practice of opening legislative sessions with prayers by paid chaplains was upheld in Marsh v. Chambers, 165 a case involving prayers in the Nebraska legislature. The Court relied almost entirely on historical practice. Congress had paid a chaplain and opened sessions with prayers for almost 200 years; the fact that Congress had continued the practice after considering constitutional objections in the Court's view strengthened rather than weakened the historical argument. Similarly, the practice was well rooted in Nebraska and in most other states. Most importantly, the First Amendment had been drafted in the First Congress with an awareness of the chaplaincy practice, and this practice was not prohibited or discontinued. The Court did not address the lower court's findings, 166 amplified in Justice Brennan's dissent, that each aspect of the Lemon v. Kurtzman tripartite test had been violated. Instead of constituting an application of the tests, therefore, Marsh can be read as representing an exception to their application. 167
The Court likewise upheld the use of legislative prayers in the context of a challenge to the use of sectarian prayers to open a town meeting. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, 168 the Court considered whether such legislative prayers needed to be
inclusive. The challenge arose when the upstate New York Town of Greece recruited local clergy, who were almost exclusively Christian, to deliver prayers at monthly town board meetings. Basing its holding largely on the nation's long history of using prayer to open legislative sessions as a means to lend gravity to the occasion and to reflect long-held values, the Court concluded that the prayer practice in the Town of Greece fit within this tradition. 169 The Court also voiced pragmatic concerns with government scrutiny respecting the content of legislative prayers. 170As a result, after Town of Greece, absent a
pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, First Amendment challenges based solely on the content of a legislative prayer appear unlikely to be successful. 171 Moreover, absent situations in which a legislative body discriminates against minority faiths, governmental entities that allow for sectarian legislative prayer do not appear to violate the Constitution. 172
Religious Displays on Government Property
A different form of governmentally sanctioned religious observance—inclusion of religious symbols in governmentally sponsored holiday displays—has yielded varying results before the Court. In 1984, in Lynch v. Donnelly, 173 the Court found that the Establishment Clause was not violated by inclusion of a Nativity scene (creche) in a city’s Christmas display; in 1989, in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 174 inclusion of a creche in a holiday display was found to constitute a violation. Also at issue in Allegheny County was inclusion of a menorah in a holiday display; here the Court found no violation. The setting of each display was crucial to the different results in these cases, the determinant being whether the Court majority believed that the overall effect of the display was to emphasize the religious nature of the symbols, or whether instead the emphasis was primarily secular. Perhaps equally important for future cases, however, was the fact that the four dissenters in Allegheny County would have upheld both the creche and menorah displays under a more relaxed, deferential standard.
Chief Justice Burger’s opinion for the Court in Lynch began by expanding on the religious heritage theme exemplified by Marsh; other evidence that
‘[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being’ 175 was supplied by reference to the national motto
In God We Trust, the affirmation
one nation under God in the pledge of allegiance, and the recognition of both Thanksgiving and Christmas as national holidays. Against that background, the Court then determined that the city’s inclusion of the creche in its Christmas display had a legitimate secular purpose in recognizing
the historical origins of this traditional event long recognized as a National Holiday, 176 and that its primary effect was not to advance religion. The benefit to religion was called
indirect, remote, and incidental, and in any event no greater than the benefit resulting from other actions that had been found to be permissible, such as the provision of transportation and textbooks to parochial school students, various assistance to church-supported colleges, Sunday closing laws, and legislative prayers. 177 The Court also reversed the lower court’s finding of entanglement based only on
political divisiveness. 178
Allegheny County was also decided by a 5-4 vote, Justice Blackmun writing the opinion of the Court on the creche issue, and there being no opinion of the Court on the menorah issue. 179 To the majority, the setting of the creche was distinguishable from that in Lynch. The creche stood alone on the center staircase of the county courthouse, bore a sign identifying it as the donation of a Roman Catholic group, and also had an angel holding a banner proclaiming
Gloria in Exclesis Deo. Nothing in the display
detract[ed] from the creche’s religious message, and the overall effect was to endorse that religious message. 180 The menorah, on the other hand, was placed outside a government building alongside a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty, and bore no religious messages. To Justice Blackmun, this grouping merely recognized
that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status; 181 to concurring Justice O’Connor, the display’s
message of pluralism did not endorse religion over nonreligion even though Chanukah is primarily a religious holiday and even though the menorah is a religious symbol. 182 The dissenters, critical of the endorsement test proposed by Justice O’Connor and of the three-part Lemon test, would instead distill two principles from the Establishment Clause:
government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in any religion or its exercise; and it may not, in the guise of avoiding hostility or callous indifference, give direct benefits to religion in such a degree that it in fact ‘establishes a state religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.’ 183
In Capitol Square Review Bd. v. Pinette, 184 the Court distinguished privately sponsored from governmentally sponsored religious displays on public property. There the Court ruled that Ohio violated free speech rights by refusing to allow the Ku Klux Klan to display an unattended cross in a publicly owned plaza outside the Ohio Statehouse. Because the plaza was a public forum in which the state had allowed a broad range of speakers and a variety of unattended displays, the state could regulate the expressive content of such speeches and displays only if the restriction was necessary, and narrowly drawn, to serve a compelling state interest. The Court recognized that compliance with the Establishment Clause can be a sufficiently compelling reason to justify content-based restrictions on speech, but saw no need to apply this principle when permission to display a religious symbol is granted through the same procedures, and on the same terms, required of other private groups seeking to convey non-religious messages.
Displays of the Ten Commandments on government property occasioned two decisions in 2005. As in Allegheny County, a closely divided Court determined that one display violated the Establishment Clause and one did not. And again, context and imputed purpose made the difference. The Court struck down display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses in two Kentucky counties, 185 but held that a display on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol was permissible. 186 The displays in the Kentucky courthouses originally
stood alone, not part of an arguably secular display. 187 Moreover, the history of the displays revealed
a predominantly religious purpose that had not been eliminated by steps taken to give the appearance of secular objectives. 188
There was no opinion of the Court in Van Orden. Justice Breyer, the swing vote in the two cases, 189 distinguished the Texas Capitol grounds display from the Kentucky courthouse displays. In some contexts, the Ten Commandments can convey a moral and historical message as well as a religious one, the Justice explained. Although it was
a borderline case turning on
a practical matter of degree, the capitol display served
a primarily nonreligious purpose. 190 The monument displaying the Ten Commandments was one of 17 monuments and 21 historical markers on the Capitol grounds; it was paid for by a private, civic, and primarily secular organization; and it had been in place, unchallenged, for 40 years. Under the circumstances, Justice Breyer thought that few would be likely to understand the monument to represent an attempt by government to favor religion. 191 A plurality of the Court would have used a different analysis to uphold the monument. Chief Justice Rehnquist argued that the Lemon test was “not useful in dealing with the sort of passive monument that Texas has erected on its Capitol grounds.” 192 Instead, the plurality’s decision was “driven both by the nature of the monument and by our Nation’s history.” 193
The Court has also considered an Establishment Clause challenge to the display of a Latin Cross—erected to honor American soldiers who died in World War I—on federal land located in a remote section of the Mojave Desert. 194 The legal proceedings leading up to the decision, however, were complicated by congressional attempts to influence the final disposition of the case, including the attempted transfer of the federal land in question to private hands. 195 As a result, a splintered Court failed to reach the merits of the underlying challenge, and instead remanded the case for further consideration. 196
The Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of another Latin Cross erected as a World War I memorial in American Legion v. American Humanist Association. 197 In upholding the memorial, Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court relied on some of the factors highlighted by Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion in Van Orden—namely, the fact that this particular monument had “stood undisturbed for nearly a century” 198 and had “acquired historical importance” to the community. 199 The majority opinion said that while the cross is a Christian symbol, that symbol “took on an added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials.” 200 Under these circumstances, the Court concluded that requiring the state to “destroy or defac[e]” the cross “would not be neutral” with respect to religion “and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.” 201
More broadly, however, in American Legion, a majority of the Justices limited Lemon’s scope. Writing for a four-Justice plurality, Justice Alito declared that several considerations “counseled against” applying the Lemon test to “longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices,” 202 saying that they should instead be considered constitutional so long as they “follow in” a historical “tradition” of religious accommodation. 203 Justices Thomas and Gorsuch wrote separate concurrences disapproving of Lemon more generally, expressing their own views on how courts should evaluate Establishment Clause claims. 204 Therefore, a majority of Justices—the plurality, plus Justices Thomas and Gorsuch—voted to limit Lemon’s applicability in future cases involving the constitutionality of religious displays on government land.
Trump v. Hawaii
An entirely different standard governs the constitutionality of a President's "national security directive regulating the entry of aliens abroad" that is "facially neutral toward religion," as the Court held in Trump v. Hawaii.  205 The plaintiffs in that case sought a preliminary injunction against a presidential proclamation that suspended or restricted the entry of foreign nationals from specified countries, arguing, in relevant part, that the proclamation "was issued for the unconstitutional purpose of excluding Muslims."  206 While the text of the document was facially neutral, restricting entry on the basis of national origin, the plaintiffs highlighted "a series of statements by the President and his advisors" suggesting that the President had intended to target immigration of Muslims.  207 The Court held that the proper standard to evaluate this Establishment Clause claim was the "circumscribed judicial inquiry" prescribed "when the denial of a visa allegedly burdens the constitutional rights of a U. S. citizen."  208 Under this standard, the Court would consider "whether the entry policy [was] plausibly related to the Government's stated objective to protect the country and improve vetting processes," and the plaintiffs' "extrinsic evidence" would not render the policy unconstitutional "so long as [the policy could] reasonably be understood to result from a justification independent of unconstitutional grounds."  209 Under this lenient standard, the Court upheld the proclamation, concluding that the plaintiffs had "not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their constitutional claim."  210
In Larkin v. Grendel’s Den, 211 the Court held that the Establishment Clause is violated by a delegation of governmental decisionmaking to churches. At issue was a state statute permitting any church or school to block issuance of a liquor license to any establishment located within 500 feet of the church or school. Although the statute had a permissible secular purpose of protecting churches and schools from the disruptions often associated with liquor establishments, the Court indicated that these purposes could be accomplished by other means, e.g., an outright ban on liquor outlets within a prescribed distance, or the vesting of discretionary authority in a governmental decisionmaker required to consider the views of affected parties. However, the conferral of a veto authority on churches had a primary effect of advancing religion both because the delegation was standardless (thereby permitting a church to exercise the power to promote parochial interests), and because
the mere appearance of a joint exercise of legislative authority by Church and State provides a significant symbolic benefit to religion in the minds of some. 212 Moreover, the Court determined, because the veto
enmeshes churches in the exercise of substantial governmental powers, it represented an entanglement offensive to
the core rationale underlying the Establishment Clause [ – ] preventing ‘a fusion of governmental and religious functions.’ 213
Using somewhat similar reasoning, the Court in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village v. Grumet, 214 invalidated a New York law creating a special school district for an incorporated village composed exclusively of members of one small religious group. The statute failed
the test of neutrality, the Court concluded, since it delegated power
to an electorate defined by common religious belief and practice, in a manner that fails to foreclose religious favoritism. It was the
anomalously case-specific nature of the legislature’s exercise of authority that left the Court
without any direct way to review such state action for conformity with the neutrality principle. Because the village did not receive its governmental authority simply as one of many communities eligible under a general law, the Court explained, there was no way of knowing whether the legislature would grant similar benefits on an equal basis to other religious and nonreligious groups.