The Establishment Clause

What are the rights and limitations?

By Marnie Vonderhaar

The Background of the Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion, but also prevents Congress from favoring or promoting one religion over another. Although some government interference is needed, the Establishment Clause prevents the government from promoting non-religion over religion, or the other way around. In the past and even currently, the Supreme Court has made important decisions regarding the Establishment Clause.

Engel v. Vitale

This case took place in 1962, and looked at the issue of nondenominational prayer in schools. The New York state law required public schools to start their day with a short, nondenominational prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. The goal of this prayer was to have the students realize their dependence on God. A parent sued New York on behalf of their child, saying that the law violated the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

But how did the Supreme Court rule? The judges ruled, 8-1, that requiring students to say a nondenominational prayer violated the Establishment Clause. The majority reasoned that the Establishment Clause was made to prevent government interference with religion. However, Justice Stewart argued that the Establishment Clause still allowed some public shows of religion.

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Lee v. Weisman

In 1991, Robert E. Lee, a middle school principal, invited a rabbi to speak at his school's graduation ceremony. The clergy was asked to come speak at the assembly and recite prayers in front of the students and their parents. Weisman's daughter was among the graduates, and he filed for an appeal to the Supreme Court.

After the appeal to the Supreme Court, the judges ruled 5-4 that hiring a rabbi to speak publicly among students violates the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment. The judges argued that hiring a clergy creates a school sponsored religious activity, which implies that the government is endorsing a certain religion. The majority also noted that requiring students to stand still and respectfully violates the First Amendment because it forces students to act in ways that suggest a national religion.

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Santa Fe v. Doe

In 1999, a more recent case, an issue was brought to the district about public prayer. A member of the student council in the Santa Fe Independent School District delivered prayers before a varsity football game at home. The prayer was described as mainly Christian, and was recited over the public speaker. Two families sued the school district because of the prayers, but while this case was pending, the district implemented a new policy that allowed, but did not require the prayers.

How did the policy affect the ruling of the District Court? Even though the new policy did not require the prayers, the judges still ruled 6-3 that student-led prayers violate the Establishment Clause. The majority argued that the prayers created a government sponsored religious activity that was taking place on government ground. The minority made a dissent that the Establishment Clause was not created to limit all religion in public life and was not made to be hostile to all things religious.

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Why Are These Court Cases So Important?

These cases have helped us to determine the rights and limitations of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause. All three of the decisions brought to the courts have effected other court cases in the past, and more that are going on currently.

For example, the Engel v. Vitale case has helped us to see the kinds of prayer allowed in public schools and in public areas. It has become a very important court case over the years and has been a basis to many other cases, such as the Lee v. Weisman and the Santa Fe v. Doe cases. The judges looked at the rulings from previous cases involving public prayer to make their decision.


Works Cited

Appeals Court Allows. Digital image. TeenJury. N.p., 5 June 2011. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.

Appeals Court Allows. Digital image. TeenJury. N.p., 5 June 2011. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.

East Germany Football Team. Digital image. Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.

"Establishment Clause." Establishment Clause. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

"Facts and Case Summary: Engel v. Vitale." USCOURTSGOV RSS. The Administrative Office of the US Courts, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.

"LEE v. WEISMAN." Lee v. Weisman. N.p., 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

Pledge of Allegiance. Digital image. Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.

"SANTA FE INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DIST. v. DOE." Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe. N.p., 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.