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Establishment Clause Freedom of Religion

A Public Moral Basis

A fundamental shift late in the twentieth century gave religious practice equal treatment under the law. Religious conduct became subject to the same laws as the rest of society rather than protected from general laws in the spirit of separation. This change opened the door to greater government aid to religious schools and organizations.

The debate over the meaning of the Establishment Clause often focused on interpreting the original intent of the framers. Some believed the framers only sought to keep the Federal government from meddling with religious policies of the states several of whom had established churches in 1791, and not restrict state activities as commonly inferred. Proponents of religious liberty claimed the First Amendment established principles of political morality. Any interpretation of the original intent or understanding could be misleading because of fundamental change in American society. With many more Americans being non-Protestant, Protestant prayers at public events can be even less tolerated than in 1791.

The issue of separation continued to be hotly debated as the twentieth century came to a close. Many, including organizations such as the Christian Coalition, believed religion continued to be inappropriately kept out of the classroom. Even the Clinton Administration outlined guidance for inclusion of religious topics in public school curricula. The Republican-lead Congress pushed for voluntary prayer in schools as states attempted to pass religious-based measures designed to protect Bible reading and mandate the teaching of "science creationism" in addition to evolution. Posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings continued as an issue in Alabama state politics in 1998.

A broader public consensus seemed evident that government cannot be neutral to religion since religion is so important to morality and justice. A democracy requires a religious and moral basis. Many point to the role religious beliefs played in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Though the "official" government position is to maintain a separation of church and state, a substantial majority of Americans wish to have governmental leaders reflect and be guided by religious faith and principles. In consequence, though the nation should be guided by religious values, it should be kept apart from religious matters. Recognizing the secular role of activities that include religious themes was yet to be clearly reconciled with the meaning and intent of the Establishment Clause. Though general agreement exists that some degree of separation between church and state is necessary, the tension of where to draw the line persists in the nation after two centuries.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesEstablishment Clause Freedom of Religion - Church And State, Development Of Separation Concepts, Religion In The Public Classroom, The Lemon Test Turns Sour