Religious Freedoms

Establishment Clause in Schools

Stone v. Graham (1980)

449 U.S. 39 (1980)

Vote: 5-4
Decision: Reversed
Per Curiam Decision
Dissent: Burger, joined by Blackmun
Dissent: Stewart
Dissent: Rehnquist


A Kentucky statute requires the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments, purchased with private contributions, on the wall of each public classroom in the State. Petitioners, claiming that this statute violates the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment, sought an injunction against its enforcement. The state trial court upheld the statute, finding that its “avowed purpose” was “secular and not religious,” and that the statute would ‘neither advance nor inhibit any religion or religious group” nor involve the State excessively in religious matters …

This Court has announced a three-part test for determining whether a challenged state statute is permissible under the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution:

“First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion … finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.'” Lemon v. Kurtzman

We conclude that Kentucky’s statute requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school rooms has no secular legislative purpose, and is therefore unconstitutional …

The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one’s parents, killing or murder adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness … It does not matter that the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are financed by voluntary private contributions, for the mere posting of the copies under the auspices of the legislature provides the “official support of the State … Government” that the Establishment Clause prohibits …

The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, and the judgment below is reversed.

It is so ordered.


The Court’s summary rejection of a secular purpose articulated by the legislature and confirmed by the state court is without precedent in Establishment Clause jurisprudence. This Court regularly looks to legislative articulations of a statute’s purpose in Establishment Clause cases and accords such pronouncements the deference they are due …

The Court rejects the secular purpose articulated by the State because the Decalogue is “undeniably a sacred text …” It is equally undeniable, however, as the elected representatives of Kentucky determined, that the Ten Commandments have had a significant impact on the development of secular legal codes of the Western World. The trial court concluded that evidence submitted substantiated this determination … Certainly the State was permitted to conclude that a document with such secular significance should be placed before its students, with an appropriate statement of the document’s secular import … The Establishment Clause does not require that the public sector be insulated from all things which may have a religious significance or origin. This Court has recognized that “religion has been closely identified with our history and government …”

I therefore dissent from what I cannot refrain from describing as a cavalier summary reversal, without benefit of oral argument or briefs on the merits, of the highest court of Kentucky.

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)

472 U.S. 38 (1985)

Vote: 6-3
Decision: Affirmed
Majority: Stevens joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell
Concurrence: Powell
Concurrence: O’Connor
Dissent: Rehnquist
Dissent: Burger
Dissent: White

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

At an early stage of this litigation, the constitutionality of three Alabama statutes was questioned: (1) § 16-1-20, enacted in 1978, which authorized a 1-minute period of silence in all public schools “for meditation”; (2) § 16-1-20.1, enacted in 1981, which authorized a period of silence “for meditation or voluntary prayer”; and (3) § 16-1-20.2, enacted in 1982, which authorized teachers to lead “willing students” in a prescribed prayer to “Almighty God … the Creator and Supreme Judge of the world.”

… Thus, the narrow question for decision is whether § 16-1-20.1, which authorizes a period of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer,” is a law respecting the establishment of religion within the meaning of the First Amendment. [Note: § 16-1-20 was not challenged and § 16-1-20.2 was deemed unconstitutional.]

Appellee Ishmael Jaffree is a resident of Mobile County, Alabama. On May 28, 1982, he filed a complaint on behalf of three of his minor children; two of them were second-grade students and the third was then in kindergarten. The complaint named members of the Mobile County School Board, various school officials, and the minor plaintiffs’ three teachers as defendants. The complaint alleged that the appellees brought the action “seeking principally a declaratory judgment and an injunction restraining the Defendants and each of them from maintaining or allowing the maintenance of regular religious prayer services or other forms of religious observances in the Mobile County Public Schools in violation of the First Amendment as made applicable to states by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution …”

As is plain from its text, the First Amendment was adopted to curtail the power of Congress to interfere with the individual’s freedom to believe, to worship, and to express himself in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience. Until the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, the First Amendment’s restraints on the exercise of federal power simply did not apply to the States. But when the Constitution was amended to prohibit any State from depriving any person of liberty without due process of law, that Amendment imposed the same substantive limitations on the States’ power to legislate that the First Amendment had always imposed on the Congress’ power. This Court has confirmed and endorsed this elementary proposition of law time and time again …

Just as the right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of a broader concept of individual freedom of mind, so also the individual’s freedom to choose his own creed is the counterpart of his right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority. At one time it was thought that this right merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Islam or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all. This conclusion derives support not only from the interest in respecting the individual’s freedom of conscience, but also from the conviction that religious beliefs worthy of respect are the product of free and voluntary choice by the faithful and from recognition of the fact that the political interest in forestalling intolerance extends beyond intolerance among Christian sects-or even intolerance among “religions”-to encompass intolerance of the disbeliever and the uncertain …

When the Court has been called upon to construe the breadth of the Establishment Clause, it has examined the criteria developed over a period of many years. Thus, in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), we wrote:

“Every analysis in this area must begin with consideration of the cumulative criteria developed by the Court over many years. Three such tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, Board of Education v. Allen, (1968); finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.’ Walz v. Tax Comm’n, (1970).”

It is the first of these three criteria that is most plainly implicated by this case. As the District Court correctly recognized, no consideration of the second or third criteria is necessary if a statute does not have a clearly secular purpose. For even though a statute that is motivated in part by a religious purpose may satisfy the first criterion, the First Amendment requires that a statute must be invalidated if it is entirely motivated by a purpose to advance religion.

In applying the purpose test, it is appropriate to ask “whether government’s actual purpose is to endorse or disapprove of religion.” In this case, the answer to that question is dispositive. For the record not only provides us with an unambiguous affirmative answer, but it also reveals that the enactment of § 16-1-20.1 was not motivated by any clearly secular purpose-indeed, the statute had no secular purpose …

The unrebutted evidence of legislative intent contained in the legislative record and in the testimony of the sponsor of § 16-1-20.1 is confirmed by a consideration of the relationship between this statute and the two other measures that were considered in this case. The District Court found that the 1981 statute and its 1982 sequel had a common, nonsecular purpose. The wholly religious character of the later enactment is plainly evident from its text …

We must, therefore, conclude that the Alabama Legislature intended to change existing law and that it was motivated by the same purpose that the Governor’s answer to the second amended complaint expressly admitted; that the statement inserted in the legislative history revealed; and that Senator Holmes’ testimony frankly described. The legislature enacted § 16-1-20.1, despite the existence of § 161-20, for the sole purpose of expressing the State’s endorsement of prayer activities for one minute at the beginning of each schoolday. The addition of “or voluntary prayer” indicates that the State intended to characterize prayer as a favored practice. Such an endorsement is not consistent with the established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion.

The importance of that principle does not permit us to treat this as an inconsequential case involving nothing more than a few words of symbolic speech on behalf of the political majority. For whenever the State itself speaks on a religious subject, one of the questions that we must ask is “whether the government intends to convey a message of endorsement or disapproval of religion.” The well-supported concurrent findings of the District Court and the Court of Appeals — that § 16-1-20.1 was intended to convey a message of state approval of prayer activities in the public schools — make it unnecessary, and indeed inappropriate, to evaluate the practical significance of the addition of the words “or voluntary prayer” to the statute. Keeping in mind, as we must,

“both the fundamental place held by the Establishment Clause in our constitutional scheme and the myriad, subtle ways in which Establishment Clause values can be eroded,” we conclude that § 16-1-20.1 violates the First Amendment.

It is so ordered.

Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)

482 U.S. 578 (1987)

Vote: 7-2
Decision: Affirmed
Majority: Brennan, joined by Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, Powell, O’Connor
Concurrence: Powell, joined by O’Connor
Concurrence: White
Dissent: Scalia, joined by Rehnquist

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question for decision is whether Louisiana’s “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction” Act (Creationism Act), La. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 17:286.1-17:286.7 (West 1982), is … valid as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment …

Appellees, who include parents of children attending Louisiana public schools, Louisiana teachers, and religious leaders, challenged the constitutionality of the Act in District Court, seeking an injunction and declaratory relief.’ Appellants, Louisiana officials charged with implementing the Act, defended on the ground that the purpose of the Act is to protect a legitimate secular interest, namely, academic freedom. Appellees attacked the Act as facially invalid because it violated the Establishment Clause and made a motion for summary judgment …

The Establishment Clause forbids the enactment of any law “respecting an establishment of religion. The Court has applied a three-pronged test to determine whether legislation comports with the Establishment Clause. First, the legislature must have adopted the law with a secular purpose. Second, the statute’s principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Third, the statute must not result in an excessive entanglement of government with religion. Lemon v. Kurtzman, (1971) …

In this case, the Court must determine whether the Establishment Clause was violated in the special context of the public elementary and secondary school system. States and local school boards are generally afforded considerable discretion in operating public schools …

If the law was enacted for the purpose of endorsing religion, “no consideration of the second or third criteria [of Lemon] is necessary. …” In this case, appellants have identified no clear secular purpose for the Louisiana Act … It is clear from the legislative history that the purpose of the legislative sponsor, Senator Bill Keith, was to narrow the science curriculum. During the legislative hearings, Senator Keith stated: “My preference would be that neither [creationism nor evolution] be taught.” 2 App. E-621. Such a ban on teaching does not promote-indeed, it undermines-the provision of a comprehensive scientific education …

Furthermore, the goal of basic “fairness” is hardly furthered by the Act’s discriminatory preference for the teaching of creation science and against the teaching of evolution. While requiring that curriculum guides be developed for creation science, the Act says nothing of comparable guides for evolution … If the Louisiana Legislature’s purpose was solely to maximize the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction, it would have encouraged the teaching of all scientific theories about the origins of humankind … Thus, we agree with the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the Act does not serve to protect academic freedom, but has the distinctly different purpose of discrediting “evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism. …”

Furthermore, it is not happenstance that the legislature required the teaching of a theory that coincided with this religious view. The legislative history documents that the Act’s primary purpose was to change the science curriculum of public schools in order to provide persuasive advantage to a particular religious doctrine that rejects the factual basis of evolution in its entirety …

In a similar way, teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction. But because the primary purpose of the Creationism Act is to endorse a particular religious doctrine, the Act furthers religion in violation of the Establishment Clause …

Appellants contend that affidavits made by two scientists, two theologians, and an education administrator raise a genuine issue of material fact and that summary judgment was therefore barred. The affidavits define creation science as “origin through abrupt appearance in complex form” and allege that such a viewpoint constitutes a true scientific theory … We agree with the lower courts that these affidavits do not raise a genuine issue of material fact. The existence of “uncontroverted affidavits” does not bar summary judgment …

The Act violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it seeks to employ the symbolic and financial support of government to achieve a religious purpose. The judgment of the Court of Appeals therefore is


JUSTICE POWELL, with whom JUSTICE O’CONNOR joins, concurring.

I write separately to note certain aspects of the legislative history, and to emphasize that nothing in the Court’s opinion diminishes the traditionally broad discretion accorded state and local school officials in the selection of the public school curriculum …

This Court consistently has applied the three-pronged test of Lemon v. Kurtzman, (1971), to determine whether a particular state action violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution …

“Balanced treatment” means “providing whatever information and instruction in both creation and evolution models the classroom teacher determines is necessary and appropriate to provide insight into both theories in view of the textbooks and other instructional materials available for use in his classroom …”

Although the Act requires the teaching of the scientific evidences of both creation and evolution whenever either is taught, it does not define either term.”A fundamental canon of statutory construction is that, unless otherwise defined, words will be interpreted as taking their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning …”

A religious purpose alone is not enough to invalidate an act of a state legislature … The religious purpose must pre-dominate … But it necessarily is circumscribed by the Establishment Clause. “Academic freedom” does not encompass the right of a legislature to structure the public school curriculum in order to advance a particular religious belief …

My examination of the language and the legislative history of the Balanced Treatment Act confirms that the intent of the Louisiana Legislature was to promote a particular religious belief. The legislative history of the Arkansas statute prohibiting the teaching of evolution examined in Epperson v. Arkansas, (1968), was strikingly similar to the legislative history of the Balanced Treatment Act … That the statute is limited to the scientific evidences supporting the theory does not render its purpose secular …

Whatever the academic merit of particular subjects or theories, the Establishment Clause limits the discretion of state officials to pick and choose among them for the purpose of promoting a particular religious belief. The language of the statute and its legislative history convince me that the Louisiana Legislature exercised its discretion for this purpose in this case …

In sum, I find that the language and the legislative history of the Balanced Treatment Act unquestionably demonstrate that its purpose is to advance a particular religious belief. Although the discretion of state and local authorities over public school curricula is broad, “the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma …” Accordingly, I concur in the opinion of the Court and its judgment that the Balanced Treatment Act violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

See also Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia 515 U.S. 819 (1995) in the Free Speech chapter

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)

530 U.S. 290 (2000)

Vote: 6-3
Decision: Affirmed
Majority: Stevens, joined by O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer
Dissent: Rehnquist, joined by Scalia, Thomas

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Prior to 1995, the Santa Fe High School student who occupied the school’s elective office of student council chaplain delivered a prayer over the public address system before each varsity football game for the entire season. This practice, along with others, was challenged in District Court as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. While these proceedings were pending in the District Court, the school district adopted a different policy that permits, but does not require, prayer initiated and led by a student at all home games. The District Court entered an order modifying that policy to permit only nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayer. The Court of Appeals held that, even as modified by the District Court, the football prayer policy was invalid. We granted the school district’s petition for certiorari to review that holding.

Respondents commenced this action in April 1995 and moved for a temporary restraining order to prevent the District from violating the Establishment Clause at the imminent graduation exercises. In their complaint the Does alleged that the District had engaged in several proselytizing practices, such as promoting attendance at a Baptist revival meeting, encouraging membership in religious clubs, chastising children who held minority religious beliefs, and distributing Gideon Bibles on school premises. They also alleged that the District allowed students to read Christian invocations and benedictions from the stage at graduation ceremonies, and to deliver overtly Christian prayers over the public address system at home football games.

On May 10, 1995, the District Court entered an interim order addressing a number of different issues. … In response to that portion of the order, the District adopted a series of policies over several months dealing with prayer at school functions … The parties stipulated that after this policy was adopted, “the senior class held an election to determine whether to have an invocation and benediction at the commencement [and that the] class voted, by secret ballot, to include prayer at the high school graduation.” In a second vote the class elected two seniors to deliver the invocation and benediction …

The August policy, which was titled “Prayer at Football Games,” … authorized two student elections, the first to determine whether “invocations” should be delivered, and the second to select the spokesperson to deliver them …

The first Clause in the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Fourteenth Amendment imposes those substantive limitations on the legislative power of the States and their political subdivisions. Wallace v. Jaffree, (1985). In Lee v. Weisman, (1992), we held that a prayer delivered by a rabbi at a middle school graduation ceremony violated that Clause. Although this case involves student prayer at a different type of school function, our analysis is properly guided by the principles that we endorsed in Lee.

As we held in that case:

“The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause. It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which ‘establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do SO.'” Id., at 587 (citations omitted) (quoting Lynch v. Donnelly, (1984)).

These invocations are authorized by a government policy and take place on government property at government sponsored school-related events … The Santa Fe school officials simply do not “evince either ‘by policy or by practice,’ any intent to open the [pregame ceremony] to ‘indiscriminate use,’ … by the student body generally.” Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, (1988). Rather, the school allows only one student, the same student for the entire season, to give the invocation. The statement or invocation, moreover, is subject to particular regulations that confine the content and topic of the student’s message,

The text of the October policy, however, exposes the extent of the school’s entanglement. The elections take place at all only because the school “board has chosen to permit students to deliver a brief invocation and/or message.” … In addition to involving the school in the selection of the speaker, the policy, by its terms, invites and encourages religious messages. The policy itself states that the purpose of the message is “to solemnize the event.” A religious message is the most obvious method of solemnizing an event. Moreover, the requirements that the message “promote good sportsmanship” and “establish the appropriate environment for competition” further narrow the types of message deemed appropriate … In fact, as used in the past at Santa Fe High School, an “invocation” has always entailed a focused religious message. Thus, the expressed purposes of the policy encourage the selection of a religious message, and that is precisely how the students understand the policy …

We recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions’ significance. But such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment. The actual or perceived endorsement of the message, moreover, is established by factors beyond just the text of the policy. Once the student speaker is selected and the message composed, the invocation is then delivered to a large audience assembled as part of a regularly scheduled, school-sponsored function conducted on school property. The message is broadcast over the school’s public address system, which remains subject to the control of school officials. It is fair to assume that the pregame ceremony is clothed in the traditional indicia of school sporting events, which generally include not just the team, but also cheerleaders and band members dressed in uniforms sporting the school name and mascot. The school’s name is likely written in large print across the field and on banners and flags. The crowd will certainly include many who display the school colors and insignia on their school T-shirts, jackets, or hats and who may also be waving signs displaying the school name. It is in a setting such as this that “[t]he board has chosen to permit” the elected student to rise and give the “statement or invocation …”

The text and history of this policy, moreover, reinforce our objective student’s perception that the prayer is, in actuality, encouraged by the school. When a governmental entity professes a secular purpose for an arguably religious policy, the government’s characterization is, of course, entitled to some deference. But it is nonetheless the duty of the courts to “distinguis[h] a sham secular purpose from a sincere one.” Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) (O’CONNOR, J., concurring in judgment).

According to the District, the secular purposes of the policy are to “foste[r] free expression of private persons … as well [as to] solemniz[e] sporting events, promot[e] good sportsmanship and student safety, and establis[h] an appropriate environment for competition.” Brief for Petitioner. We note, however, that the District’s approval of only one specific kind of message, an “invocation,” is not necessary to further any of these purposes. Additionally, the fact that only one student is permitted to give a content-limited message suggests that this policy does little to “foste[r] free expression.” Furthermore, regardless of whether one considers a sporting event an appropriate occasion for solemnity, the use of an invocation to foster such solemnity is impermissible when, in actuality, it constitutes prayer sponsored by the school. And it is unclear what type of message would be both appropriately “solemnizing” under the District’s policy and yet nonreligious. Most striking to us is the evolution of the current policy from the long-sanctioned office of “Student Chaplain” to the candidly titled “Prayer at Football Games” regulation. This history indicates that the District intended to preserve the practice of prayer before football games … Given these observations, and in light of the school’s history of regular delivery of a student-led prayer at athletic events, it is reasonable to infer that the specific purpose of the policy was to preserve a popular “state-sponsored religious practice …”

Therefore, the simple enactment of this policy, with the purpose and perception of school endorsement of student prayer, was a constitutional violation. We need not wait for the inevitable to confirm and magnify the constitutional injury. In Wallace, for example, we invalidated Alabama’s as yet unimplemented and voluntary “moment of silence” statute based on our conclusion that it was enacted “for the sole purpose of expressing the State’s endorsement of prayer activities for one minute at the beginning of each school day …” Therefore, even if no Santa Fe High School student were ever to offer a religious message, the October policy fails a facial challenge because the attempt by the District to encourage prayer is also at issue. Government efforts to endorse religion cannot evade constitutional reproach based solely on the remote possibility that those attempts may fail. This policy likewise does not survive a facial challenge because it impermissibly imposes upon the student body a majoritarian election on the issue of prayer. Through its election scheme, the District has established a governmental electoral mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate. It further empowers the student body majority with the authority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages. The award of that power alone, regardless of the students’ ultimate use of it, is not acceptable …

The 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. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is, accordingly, affirmed.

It is so ordered.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Civil Rights and Liberties Copyright © 2023 by Rorie Spill Solberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.