Court Tests Applied to Legislation Affecting Religion.

Before considering in detail the development of the two religion clauses by the Supreme Court, one should notice briefly the tests the Court has articulated to adjudicate the religion cases. At the same time it should be emphasized that the Court has noted that the language of earlier cases “may have [contained] too sweeping utterances on aspects of these clauses that seemed clear in relation to the particular cases but have limited meaning as general principles.”15 While later cases have relied on a series of well-defined, if difficult-to-apply, tests, the Court has cautioned that “the purpose [of the religion clauses] was to state an objective, not to write a statute.”16

In 1802, President Jefferson wrote a letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, in which he declared that it was the purpose of the First Amendment to build “a wall of separation between Church and State.”17 In Reynolds v. United States,18 Chief Justice Waite for the Court characterized the phrase as “almost an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment.” In its first encounters with religion-based challenges to state programs, the Court looked to Jefferson’s metaphor for substantial guidance.19 But a metaphor may obscure as well as illuminate, and the Court soon began to emphasize neutrality and voluntarism as the standard of restraint on governmental action.20 The concept of neutrality itself is “a coat of many colors,”21 and three standards that seemingly could be stated in objective fashion emerged as tests of Establishment Clause validity. The first two standards emerged together. “The test may be stated as follows: what are the purpose and the primary effect of the enactment? If either is the advancement or inhibition of religion then the enactment exceeds the scope of legislative power as circumscribed by the Constitution. That is to say that to withstand the strictures of the Establishment Clause there must be a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion.”22 The third test emerged several years later and asks whether the governmental program results in “an excessive government entanglement with religion. The test is inescapably one of degree . . . [T]he questions are whether the involvement is excessive, and whether it is a continuing one calling for official and continuing surveillance leading to an impermissible degree of entanglement.”23 In 1971, these three tests were combined and restated in Chief Justice Burger’s opinion for the Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman,24 and are frequently referred to by reference to that case name.

Although at one time accepted in principle by all the Justices,25 the tests have sometimes been difficult to apply,26 have recently come under direct attack by some Justices,27 and in several instances the Court has not applied them at all.28 Nonetheless, the Court employed the Lemon tests in several recent Establishment Clause decisions,29 and those tests remain the primary standard of Establishment Clause validity. Other tests, however, have also been formulated and used. Justice Kennedy has proffered “coercion” as an alternative test for violations of the Establishment Clause,30 and the Court has used that test as the basis for decision from time to time.31 But that test has been criticized on the grounds that it would eliminate a principal distinction between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause and make the former a “virtual nullity.”32 Justice O’Connor has suggested “endorsement” as a clarification of the Lemon test; i.e., that the Establishment Clause is violated if the government intends its action to endorse or disapprove of religion or if a “reasonable observer” would perceive the government’s action as such an endorsement or disapproval.33 But others have criticized that test as too amorphous to provide adequate guidance.34 Justice O’Connor has also suggested that it may be inappropriate to try to shoehorn all Establishment Clause cases into one test, and has called instead for recognition that different contexts may call for different approaches.35 In two Establishment Clause decisions, the Court employed all three tests in one decision36 and relied primarily on a modified version of the Lemon tests in the other.37

In interpreting and applying the Free Exercise Clause, the Court has consistently held religious beliefs to be absolutely immune from governmental interference.38 But it has used a number of standards to review government action restrictive of religiously motivated conduct, ranging from formal neutrality39 to clear and present danger40 to strict scrutiny.41 For cases of intentional governmental discrimination against religion, the Court still employs strict scrutiny42 But for most other free exercise cases it has now reverted to a standard of formal neutrality. “[T]he right of free exercise,” it has stated, “does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a ‘valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).’ ”43

Footnotes

15
Walz v. Tax Comm’n, 397 U.S. 664, 668 (1970). back
16
397 U.S. at 668. back
17
16 THE WRITINGS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 281 (A. Libscomb ed., 1904). back
18
98 U.S. 145, 164 (1879). back
19
Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 16 (1947); Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 211, 212 (1948); cf. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 317 (1952) (Justice Black dissenting). In Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 614 (1971), Chief Justice Burger remarked that “the line of separation, far from being a ‘wall,’ is a blurred, indistinct and variable barrier depending on all the circumstances of a particular relationship.” In his opinion for the Court, the Chief Justice repeated similar observations in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 673 (1984) (the metaphor is not “wholly accurate”; the Constitution does not “require complete separation of church and state [but] affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any”). back
20
Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 314 (1952); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962); Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963); Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 305 (1963) (Justice Goldberg concurring); Walz v. Tax Comm’n, 397 U.S. 664, 694–97 (1970) (Justice Harlan concurring). In the opinion of the Court in Walz, Chief Justice Burger wrote: “The course of constitutional neutrality in this area cannot be an absolutely straight line; rigidity could well defeat the basic purpose of these provisions, which is to insure that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded, and none inhibited. The general principle deducible from the First Amendment and all that has been said by the Court is this: that we will not tolerate either governmentally established religion or governmental interference with religion. Short of those expressly proscribed governmental acts there is room for play in the joints productive of a benevolent neutrality which will permit religious exercise to exist without sponsorship and without interference.” Id. at 669. back
21
Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236, 249 (1968) (Justice Harlan concurring). back
22
Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 222 (1963). back
23
Walz v. Tax Comm’n, 397 U.S. 664, 674–75 (1970). back
24
403 U.S. 602, 612–13 (1971). back
25
E.g., Committee for Pub. Educ. and Religious Liberty v. Regan, 444 U.S. 646, 653 (1980), and id. at 665 (dissenting opinion); Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 40 (1980), and id. at 43 (dissenting opinion). back
26
The tests provide “helpful signposts,” Hunt v. McNair, 413 U.S. 734, 741 (1973), and are at best “guidelines” rather than a “constitutional caliper”; they must be used to consider “the cumulative criteria developed over many years and applying to a wide range of governmental action.” Inevitably, “no ‘bright line’ guidance is afforded.” Tilton v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 672, 677–78 (1971). See also Committee for Pub. Educ. and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756, 761 & n.5, 773 n.31 (1973); Committee for Public Educ. and Religious Liberty v. Regan, 444 U.S. 646, 662 (1980), and id. at 663 (Justice Blackmun dissenting). back
27
See, e.g., Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 636–40 (1987) (Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, dissenting) (advocating abandonment of the “purpose” test); Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 108–12 (1985) (Justice Rehnquist dissenting); Aguilar v. Felton, 473 U.S. 402, 426–30 (1985) (Justice O’Connor, dissenting) (addressing difficulties in applying the entanglement prong); Roemer v. Maryland Bd. of Public Works, 426 U.S. 736, 768–69 (Justice White concurring in judgment) (objecting to entanglement test). Justice Kennedy has also acknowledged criticisms of the Lemon tests, while at the same time finding no need to reexamine them. See, e.g., Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 655–56 (1989). At least with respect to public aid to religious schools, Justice Stevens would abandon the tests and simply adopt a “no-aid” position. Committee for Public Educ. & Religious Liberty v. Regan, 444 U.S. 646, 671 (1980). back
28
See Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983) (upholding legislative prayers on the basis of historical practice); Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 587 (1992) (rejecting a request to reconsider Lemon because the practice of invocations at public high school graduations was invalid under established school prayer precedents). The Court has also held that the tripartite test is not applicable when law grants a denominational preference, distinguishing between religions; rather, the distinction is to be subjected to the strict scrutiny of a suspect classification. Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 244–46 (1982). See also Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School Dist., 509 U.S. 1 (1993) (upholding provision of sign-language interpreter to deaf student attending parochial school); Board of Educ. of Kiryas Joel Village v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994) (invalidating law creating special school district for village composed exclusively of members of one religious sect); Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995) (upholding the extension of a university subsidy of student publications to a student religious publication). back
29
Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203 (1997) (upholding under the Lemon tests the provision of remedial educational services by public school teachers to sectarian elementary and secondary schoolchildren on the premises of the sectarian schools); Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000) (holding unconstitutional under the Lemon tests as well as under the coercion and endorsement tests a school district policy permitting high school students to decide by majority vote whether to have a student offer a prayer over the public address system prior to home football games); and Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000) (upholding under the Lemon tests a federally funded program providing instructional materials and equipment to public and private elementary and secondary schools, including sectarian schools). back
30
County of Allegheny v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 655 (1989) (Justice Kennedy concurring in part and dissenting in part); and Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992). back
31
Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000). back
32
Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 621 (Souter, J., concurring). See also County of Allegheny v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 623 (1989) (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment). back
33
Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 688 (1984) (concurring); Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 625 (1989) (concurring); Board of Educ. of Kiryas Joel Village v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687, 712 (1994) (concurring). back
34
County of Allegheny v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 655 (1989) (Justice Kennedy, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part); and Capitol Square Review Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753, 768 n.3 (1995) (Justice Scalia). back
35
Board of Educ. of Kiryas Joel Village v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687, 718–723 (1994) (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment). back
36
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000). back
37
Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000). back
38
Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. (8 Otto) 145 (1878); Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940); Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993). back
39
Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. (8 Otto) 145 (1879); Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961). back
40
Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940). back
41
Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972). back
42
Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993). back
43
Employment Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 879 (1990), quoting United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, 263, n.3 (1982) (Justice Stevens concurring in the judgment). back