The Supreme Court’s top religion case this term centers on the establishment clause, a much-contested legal protection aimed at preventing excessive entanglement between church and state. Justices must decide if a 40-foot-tall, cross-shaped World War I memorial maintained with government funds in Bladensburg, Md., amounts to unlawful religious favoritism.
Many of the cross’s supporters hope the Supreme Court will do more than allow the memorial to remain on public land. They want justices to adjust how the establishment clause is applied in future cases and affirm that even a secular government can support religious symbols and partner with faith groups.
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling, which is expected by the end of June, the case presents an opportunity to cover the drama surrounding this piece of the First Amendment. Legal experts disagree about the proper relationship between religion and government, but unite in the sense that establishment clause battles are difficult to sort out.
“The establishment clause is rooted in a concept of separating the power of church and state. These are the two most authoritative forces of human existence, and drawing a boundary line between them is not easy,” wrote Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar, for the National Constitution Center.
Recent Supreme Court rulings in cases such as Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, in which justices said religiously affiliated organizations should be treated the same as other groups in a Missouri grant program, signal that many justices support a more porous boundary.
Similarly, the Trump administration celebrates church-state partnerships. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently cited the Trinity Lutheran ruling as a reason to allow private schools to work with faith-based contractors.
This edition of ReligionLink explores these developments in more detail, offering a snapshot of establishment clause-related debates.
- Establishment clause: The establishment clause is one of two religion-related protections guaranteed by the First Amendment. It states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
- Establish a religion: Legal experts disagree on what it means to establish a religion. Nearly all say it includes mandating attendance at or financial support of a particular house of worship and interfering with who is ordained. Jurists also agree, in general, that officials shouldn’t privilege one faith group over others, but they clash over what constitutes privilege. Some argue that the establishment clause calls for clear church-state separation, which would mean excluding faith groups from taxpayer-funded grant programs and keeping religious symbols off public property. Others say the Constitution allows for some overlap between the two institutions.
- Lemon test: The Lemon test is one method judges use to rule on establishment clause cases. Under this test, a policy or action must have a secular purpose and a primary effect that doesn’t promote religion or encourage excessive church-state entanglement in order to stand. It’s been criticized for being too subjective.
- Endorsement test: Often thought of as an add-on to the Lemon test, the endorsement test is also used in establishment clause cases. It asks judges to consider how a reasonable observer would react to a government action or publicly funded display, such as the Bladensburg cross, if they knew the historical context surrounding it.
On the Bladensburg cross case
- Read “Supreme Court justices search for middle ground in church-state fight over 40-foot Latin cross on state land” from USA Today on Feb. 27, 2019.
- Read “Why faith groups are divided over the cross case before the Supreme Court this week” from the Deseret News on Feb. 25, 2019.
- Read “40-foot cross divides a community and prompts a Supreme Court battle” from The New York Times on Feb. 24, 2019.
- Read “Religion or remembrance? Supreme Court to mull cross-shaped war memorial” from Religion News Service on Feb. 22, 2019.
- Read “Does a 40-foot Latin cross honoring World War I veterans violate the Constitution? The Supreme Court will decide” from USA Today on Feb. 20, 2019.
On Trinity Lutheran
- Read “Six issues to watch in the Supreme Court’s Trinity Lutheran case” from Religion News Service on June 28, 2017.
- Read “The Supreme Court sided with Trinity Lutheran Church. Here’s why that matters” from The Washington Post on June 26, 2017.
- Read “The Supreme Court strikes down a major church-state barrier” from The Atlantic on June 26, 2017.
On establishment clause trends
- Read “The court and the cross” from The New York Times on March 14, 2019.
- Read “The Supreme Court is quietly changing the status of religion in American life” from The New Yorker on March 6, 2019.
- Read “The Supreme Court could reinterpret the First Amendment in a conservative direction this term. Here’s how” from the Deseret News on Jan. 14, 2019.
- Read “Supreme Court at the crossroads of the establishment clause as it considers a cross” from SCOTUSblog on Dec. 11, 2018.
- Read “The end of a walking dead doctrine?” from SCOTUSblog on Dec. 11, 2018.
- Read “The Supreme Court, religion and the future of school choice” from The Conversation on July 9, 2017.
- Read “What can the U.S. learn from how other countries balance church and state?” from America on May 9, 2017.
Mary Anne Case is a law professor at the University of Chicago. She teaches on a variety of legal topics, including sexual discrimination, religious freedom, constitutional law and feminist jurisprudence.
Caroline Mala Corbin is a law professor at the University of Miami who specializes in First Amendment issues, including free speech and religious freedom. She regularly joins amicus briefs on religious issues that are filed with the Supreme Court.
Marc DeGirolami is a law professor and associate director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. He is the author of The Tragedy of Religious Freedom.
Garrett Epps is a law professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in constitutional law. He covers the Supreme Court for The Atlantic as a contributing writer and is the author of several books on the topic, including American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.
Howard Friedman is a professor of law emeritus at the University of Toledo in Ohio. He maintains a blog called Religion Clause, which tracks religious freedom-related lawsuits in the U.S. and around the world.
Richard Garnett is a professor of law and political science at the University of Notre Dame. He is an expert on the Supreme Court, church-state issues, religious liberty and Catholic social thought.
Frederick Gedicks is an expert on law and religion who teaches at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. He regularly writes amicus briefs, law review articles and columns on religious freedom cases before the Supreme Court.
Luke Goodrich is vice president and senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a firm that specializes in religious freedom cases. He is also an adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Utah.
Sarah Barringer Gordon is a professor of constitutional law and history at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in church-state conflicts and American religious history. She is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America and The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America.
Marci A. Hamilton is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the founder, CEO and academic director for Child USA, a nonprofit think tank aimed at ending child abuse. Hamilton, who began her career as a lawyer, is an expert on child sex abuse statutes, as well as law and religion. She is author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty.
Holly Hollman is general counsel for and associate executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, where she specializes in church-state issues. She is also an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University. Arrange an interview through Cherilyn Crowe.
Paul Horwitz is a professor of law at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he specializes in law and religion, constitutional law and the First Amendment. He is the author of The Agnostic Age: Law, Religion and the Constitution and First Amendment Institutions.
Rebecca S. Markert serves as legal director for the Freedom from Religion Foundation. She is an expert on First Amendment litigation and typically works on cases related to religion in public schools and religious symbols on government property.
Michael McConnell directs the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, where he also teaches. He’s argued 15 cases before the Supreme Court and written numerous books and articles on church-state issues and the Constitution. He served as a circuit judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals from 2002 to 2009.
Monica Miller is senior counsel for the American Humanist Association. She argued against the Bladensburg cross before the Supreme Court. Arrange an interview through Sarah Henry.
Kurt Lash is a constitutional law scholar at the University of Richmond, where he directs the Richmond Program on the American Constitution.
Rachel Laser is the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy organization that seeks to reduce entanglement between the government and faith groups. She previously served as deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she worked on social justice issues, including gun control, abortion rights and reproductive rights. Arrange an interview through Liz Hayes.
Douglas Laycock is a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia and an authority on religious liberty. He is the author of several books and articles on law and religion and co-edited a collection of essays on same-sex marriage and religious freedom.
Melissa Rogers is a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies for Brookings, where she specializes in the First Amendment’s religion clauses and religion and faith-related political issues. She previously served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Kelly Shackelford is president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, a Texas law firm that works to preserve religious freedom and argued in support of the Bladensburg cross before the Supreme Court.
Steven D. Smith serves as co-executive director of the Institute for Law and Religion and the Institute for Law and Philosophy at the University of San Diego, where he also teaches constitutional law.
Robert Tuttle is a research professor of law and religion at George Washington University. He co-authored, along with Ira C. Lupu, Secular Government, Religious People.
Kristen Waggoner is senior vice president for the U.S. legal division and communications for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a firm known for defending religious objectors to LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws. She argued Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission before the Supreme Court. Arrange an interview through this media contact form.
John Witte Jr. directs the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, where he also teaches law. He is an expert on legal issues related to marriage, family, Christianity and religious freedom. His books include Church, State and Family: Reconciling Traditional Teachings and Modern Liberties and Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment.
- Read “Most say religious holiday displays on public property are OK” from Pew Research Center on Dec. 15, 2014.
- Pew asked this question again in 2017. Over three years, opposition to Christian displays on government property rose from 20 percent to 26 percent.
- Read “State of the First Amendment 2011” from the Freedom Forum Institute in July 2011.
- This survey found that two-thirds of U.S. adults believe the First Amendment mandates clear separation of church and state.
- Read “Shifting boundaries: The Establishment Clause and government funding of religious schools and other faith-based organizations” from Pew Research Center on May 14, 2009.
- Read “Religious displays and the courts” from Pew Research Center on June 27, 2007.