In the most recent debate, I mentioned several cases as evidence to prove the arguments. However, I failed to expound on the details of those cases. Here I want to dive into the details behind a case, the judicial decision and reasoning, and the consequences of that decision.

After reading these case details, it will be helpful to go back and follow our debate about the relationship between church and state. Click here for access to that article.

Some Legal Terminology

Facts – References the background behind the case.

Holding – The final judicial decision regarding a case.

Opinion – The reasoning behind the holding.

Establishment Clause – The First Amendment states that Congress may make no law that establishes religion.

Everson v. Board of Education


In 1941, New Jersey passed a law that allowed local school boards to provide transportation to public and private schools.

Ewing Township had no public high schools. So, they decided to use taxpayer dollars to reimburse parents the cost of sending their children to neighboring public schools and private schools. However, the private schools were largely associated with the Roman Catholic Church.

Arch Everson was a taxpayer living in the district who opposed the reimbursements sent to parents with children enrolled in private schools. He claimed the money supported religion in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.


New Jersey did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment


Before the U.S. founding, taxpayers were often used to pay the salaries of ministry officials. The founders became very concerned that a relationship between the church and the state would form and unite to burden the people.

Justice Black then outlines what kinds of relationships violate the establishment clause. These include any compulsion to attend or not attend religious institutions, taxes used to support these institutions, or provide aid in any way to these institutions.

Despite the seemingly all-encompassing rule, the court found that New Jersey did not violate the First Amendment for 4 reasons. 

  1. Providing aid for transportation was purely secular. The purpose was to provide safe transportation for students. 
  2. The aid was indirect. The aid was not paid directly to the institution.
  3. The beneficiaries were children and their parents, not the church.
  4. The aid was neutral in where it was directed. All school children were eligible to receive the aid.


If the purpose is secular, the aid indirectly benefits the church, the beneficiaries are not the church, and the aid is neutrally provided, it does not violate the establishment clause.

Lemon v. Kurtzman and Earley v. DiCenso


Supported by several interest groups in Pennsylvania, Alton Lemon sued David Kurtzman. Kurtzman was the state superintendent of schools. He was authorized to purchase secular educational services from non-public schools. In other words, he could reimburse secular teachers for expenses in salaries, textbooks, and educational materials. To receive these payments, schools needed to keep separate records of secular and religious expenses.

The courts decided to combine Lemon with another case from Rhode Island. Here, teachers’ salaries could be supplemented by up to 15 percent if they taught secular subjects. Again, teachers had to show they were only involved in secular and not religious activities to receive the supplemented salary.

Because of the similarity in details, the Supreme Court determined to examine the cases together.


Both Pennsylvania and Rhode Island violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.


Right away the courts created a test to see if a law violated the establishment clause. The test has three parts.

  1. The law must be secular in purpose.
  2. The law cannot advance or inhibit religion.
  3. The law must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.

Rhode Island and Pennsylvania withstood the first two tests. The courts acknowledged the purpose was secular. Additionally, the states made efforts to ensure the aid did not advance nor inhibit religion. However, both states failed to prove there was no excessive entanglement between government and religion.

To prove there is no excessive entanglement the courts must evaluate:

  • The nature of the institution receiving aid.
  • The nature of the aid being provided.
  • The resulting relationship between the two.

Here, the courts found the aid was going to religious institutions. Also, the states must keep close surveillance on the institution to ensure they do not abuse the aid. Because of these reasons, there was excessive entanglement.


The courts adopted the Lemon test which is still precedent today. The Lemon test is the three-pronged analysis described in the opinion.

Van Orden v. Perry


On the state capitol grounds in Texas, there is a monument that contains the text of the Ten Commandments. After walking past the monument for several years, Thomas Van Orden asked for its removal, claiming it was a violation of the establishment clause. Both the district court and the lower court of appeals disagreed.


The placement of the monument does not violate the establishment clause.


Justice Rehnquist opens by stating the difficulty of adjudicating based on the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. He also discusses the Lemon test and how it is to be treated more as a guideline because the courts have frequently overlooked parts of the test. Here, the courts choose not to look closely at Lemon.

Instead, the courts focus on the historical and legal implications of the Ten Commandments. They find that this is a passive way of reminding the people where they came from without pressuring the people to accept religion. They state, “Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.”


Lemon has been treated more as a guideline than overarching governance. Passive religious symbols may be alright if they have a secular purpose.

Honorable Mentions

School District of Abington Township v. Schempp

Prayer or bible reading in school is not alright if they have no secular purpose.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Vouchers for Public and Private Schools are alright if they provide parents the individual choice of how to apply them.

Edwards v. Aguillard

Case about evolution. Click here for more details.

Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer

If a church also runs a secular activity (daycare) aid cannot be restricted to support the secular needs.

Town of Greece v. Galloway

Prayer in City Council meetings is alright if they have a ceremonial purpose.