Separation of church and state
Recent U.S. court cases
Of all the courts in the U.S., it is the Supreme Court that has the most
definitive effect on church-state matters. But they often influence the culture
more by inaction than by action. The justices of the Court only select for
review some of the cases referred to them from lower courts. By electing to take
no action on other cases, they let the decisions of those lower courts stand.
||1999-OCT-12: USA: U.S. Supreme Court announcement: The Court listed some of the cases
from lower courts that it will study, and which they will let stand during
its 1999-2000 term:
||They are planning to review only one major church-state case so far.
This is whether governments can fund computers and other instructional
material which is to be used in parochial schools.|
||They let stand a number of decisions by lower courts:
||The government of Maine's school voucher program remains
constitutional. Although it subsidizes children who attend private
non-religious schools, the law bars the state from directly paying
children's tuition to religious schools. In its previous term, the
court allowed a similar law to stand: In Wisconsin, the state pays
school tuition indirectly: it gives vouchers to parents which they
may use at any school of their choice -- religious or secular.
||A special school district for Chasidic Jews in Kiryas Joel, NY
remains unconstitutional. State legislators had created a separate
school district so that students who are Chasidic Jews can go to
their own school. They were ridiculed and discriminated against when
they had attended regular public schools in the area. The state has
unsuccessfully tried three times to pass legislation to enable what
is in effect a religiously oriented public school in the area.
||A Pennsylvania state law regarding Bibles, other religious
publications and religious articles remains unconstitutional. It
exempted sales of such material by religious organizations from
state taxes. 15
||1999-OCT-15: VA: Nativity display: Rita Warren, a resident of Fairfax
VA, erects a personal nativity display at Christmas time in an circular, open,
public area in front of a Fairfax County government building. The Fairfax County
supervisors rewrote the country rules in 1996, to allow only individuals and
organizations who resided in the county to use the circle. The Virginia chapter of the
Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had objected in the past to Ms. Warren's
attempts to put religious displays inside government buildings. This
time, they sued on her behalf. They felt that the county rule was a direct
violation of her 1st Amendment rights. They feel individuals
should be able to freely use an open area in front of a government
building, even those who wish to express religious beliefs. Rita Warren, the
ACLU and the 1st Amendment all won in the Richmond VA Federal
Appeals Court. The vote was 9 to 3. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote,
"Speech in America cannot be that parochial...Surely a speaker is
entitled to spread the faith or the political gospel beyond the community in
which she lives." County officials are not planning to
||1999-DEC-17: IN: School posting of "common precepts":
The Scott school board is planning to post a list of 11 "common
precepts" in its six public school after 2000-JAN-1. They include
"Trust in God," "Respect Authority,"
"Honor your parents and family members," "Save sex
for marriage." The American Civil Liberties Union claims
that these precepts are based on the Bible and should not be posted in
public schools. School Board president Rod Colson said. "Everybody's
agreed - we're not backing down." He feels that local parents are
supportive of the idea.|
||2000-APR-27: OH: State motto: According to AANEWS, "A
three judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled
2-1 that the 41-year-old slogan violated the separation of church and
state, and was a government endorsement of the Christian religion."
The motto is: "With God, All Things Are Possible." [A
direct biblical quotation from Matthew 19:26] Judge Avern Cohn wrote in the majority opinion: "In the
context in which the words of the motto are found -- as the words of
Jesus speaking of salvation -- to a reasonable observer, they must be
seen as advancing, or at a minimum, showing a particular affinity for
Christianity...Simply put, they are an endorsement of the Christian
religion by the State of Ohio. No other interpretation in the
context of their presence in the New Testament is possible. No
amount of semantic
legerdemain can hide the fact that the official motto of the State of
Ohio repeats word-for-word, Jesus' answer to his disciples' questions
about the ability to enter heaven, and thereby achieve
salvation..." It is almost certain that the state will appeal
the decision to the full Court of Appeals. More
||2000-MAY-15: NY: Cancellation of tax-exempt status of church upheld:
According to Freedom Forum: |
A church in Binghamton NY had taken out full-page newspaper ads in USA
TODAY and the Washington Times calling for Christians to defeat Bill
Clinton in the 1992 general election because of his stance on access
to abortion, equal rights for gays, and distribution of condoms to
public school students. The IRS revoked the church's tax exempt
status. A federal appeals court panel unanimously ruled that the
Internal Revenue Service did not violate the First Amendment rights of
According to the Washington Post:
"Lawyers for the church say the ruling violated the church's
free-speech rights and engaged in selective prosecution. All three
judges on the appeals panel are conservatives appointed by President
According to ReligionToday:
"Under the ruling, a church still can set up a political
action committee but no tax-deductible money can be used. First,
church officials and lay supporters can set up a tax-exempt public
advocacy group, which would have to be legally separate from the
church. Then the advocacy group could establish a PAC."
Presumably, this route would be possible for any church or other
2000-MAY-15: WI: Statue of Jesus:
According to Maranatha Christian Journal: 18|
A statue of Jesus was unveiled in 1959 in the Praschak
Wayside Park of Marshfield WI. In 1998, the Freedom From Religion
Foundation (FFRF) sued the city because the presence of the statue
on city land was an obvious violation of church and state separation.
This lawsuit was dismissed after the city circumvented the
constitutional problems by selling a small part of the park which
contained the statue to a private citizens' group. Since the small
plot of land was not differentiated in any way from the rest of the
park, FFRF asked that the judge order a ten foot high wall around the
statue so that it could not be seen by passers-by. The judge accepted
the city's proposal for a four foot high wrought iron fence with a
"Private Park" sign to differentiate the private land
from the public park.
Francis Manion, of the American Center for Law and Justice,
a Fundamentalist Christian legal group, said that the decision was
"a victory for common sense in an area of the law where [it]
is all too often forgotten...Groups like Freedom From Religion
Foundation need to understand that the First Amendment protects
freedom of religion--and does not mandate freedom from religion."
The original article on the statue was apparently published by the Charisma
News Service. It incorrectly identified the FFRF as an "atheists'
group" The FFRF describes itself as a group of "freethinkers
- atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, rationalists."
19 We suspect that they also have many Christians and other theists among
their members, who are concerned with church-state separation issues.
||2001-MAR-16: OH: State motto: According to AANEWS: The
full 6th U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a 2:1 decision of its
own three judge panel and declared the Ohio motto "With God
All Things Are Possible" from Matthew 19:26 to be not a
religious slogan and not a violation of the separation of church and
state. They ruled that this motto did not differ from other similar
references to God, like the new national motto "In God We
Trust." More details|
||2001-SEP-24: CA: Prayer limited in Burbank city council: For
decades, the Council has invited leaders from various faith groups to
offer an opening prayer. A citizen in the audience objected to one
prayer which ended "In the name of Jesus Christ." He filed a
lawsuit. A judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled against the
city, ordering council to monitor the content of future prayers.
Apparently, prayers to a "God" are allowable because of the near
universal belief in a God, Gods, Goddesses etc. But prayers to Jesus are
too specific, and conflict with the beliefs of a large minority of
people. The city council voted unanimously to appeal the ruling. In
2002-SEP, they lost the appeal to the state's Second District Court
of Appeal who said that
2002-JUL-24: NV: Lone cross on public land:
An eight-foot-tall cross is situated on the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County between Barstow, CA and Las Vegas, NV.
Its purpose was to honor Christian veterans of World War I. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has initiated a lawsuit arguing that
the cross violated the Constitution because it was a religious symbol on public land. |
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear the case,
now called Salazaar vs. Buono, in 2009-OCT. It is a vary important case
because it is the first opportunity for the Roberts Court to decide a case
that directly involves the 1st Amendment's
establishment clause. 27 More details
2002-SEP-9: CA: Prayer limited in Burbank city council: See
background on this story above. A three-judge panel of the state's Second District
Court of Appeal upheld a prior decision of the Los Angeles Superior
Court. Both declared that prayers which are given before council
meetings are unconstitutional if they promote any one faith or belief over
another. The case originated in a 1999 meeting of the Burbank council in
which a Christian minister prayed "in the name of Jesus Christ."
"The expression of gratitude and love 'in the name of Jesus Christ'
was an explicit invocation of a particular religious belief," Judge
Katherine Doi Todd wrote: "The invocation conveyed the message that
the Burbank City Council was a Christian body and from this it could be
inferred that the council was advancing a religious belief."
||2005-JUN-08: VT: Conflict over religious
license plate: Shawn Byrne requested a custom license plate for his 1966
Ford pickup which read "JN36TN" and referred to John 3:16, one of the most
popular exclusivist passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). In
the King James Version, it reads: "For God so loved the world, that he
gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not
perish, but have everlasting life." The Department of Motor Vehicles
denied his request on the basis that state regulations prohibits license
plates of a religious nature. Vermont Assistant Attorney General,
Harvey Golubock, said: "The state doesn't want to be in the business of
endorsing a particular religion or deity. He could paint it on the side of a
car -- the state wouldn't have a problem with that." Byrne has sued the
state. Jeremy Tedesco of the Alliance Defense Fund who represented
Byrne, said: "This is a straightforward case of viewpoint discrimination.
The message is associated with the person behind the wheel." Judge
Jerome Niedermeier said that he wasn't sure that most people would realize
what the collection of letters and numbers meant. He said: "It takes a
little mental gymnastics to get to the point of what it refers to."|
||2005-NOV-30: IN: Federal court judge bans sectarian prayer in House:
Judge David Hamilton issued a ruling on NOV-30 covering the prayers
delivered by volunteer clergy at the opening of daily sessions of the Indiana House
of Representatives. He noted that "....prayer opportunities have
frequently and consistently been used to advance the Christian religion."
He barred future prayers that endorse
any specific religion. He based his decision on a 1983 ruling of the U.S.
Supreme Court which was in turn based on the principle of the separation of church and state. Judge Hamilton
said that those delivering prayers: |
"...do not have a First Amendment right....to use an official
platform like the Speaker's podium....to express their own religious
faiths....If the Speaker chooses to continue to permit nonsectarian
prayers as part of the official proceedings, he shall advise all persons
offering such prayers...that the prayers must be non-sectarian and must
not be used to proselytize or advance any one faith or belief or to
disparage any other faith or belief....The prayers should not use
Christ's name or title or any other denominational appeal."
The court challenge was triggered by Rev. Clarence Brown, of Second
Baptist Church in Bedford, IN. He led the House in singing "Just a
Little Talk with Jesus." It caused some offended representatives to
leave the House.
Reaction to Judge Hamilton's decision was mixed:
||Richard Walton of the Indianapolis Star wrote that: "Dozens of religious
leaders, including Christians, have signed a statement saying that House prayers
should honor religious diversity."
||The speaker of the House, Rep. Brian Bosma, (R-Indianapolis), called the
ruling "intolerable," "terrible," and "shocking." He said:
"This is an intolerable decision I hope cannot stand." He has
challenged Judge Hamilton's ruling, but will follow the decision until
his challenge is resolved.
||Rabbi Jon Adland of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, was
pleased with the decision. He said: "if you're going to have prayer
it has to be inclusive of all people."
||Former House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, (D-South Bend) apparently
misunderstood the Judge's ruling. He said: "I think it's untenable.
It's a question of excluding all religions, and that's where the error
lies. I don't think you forsake religion."
||Imam Umar Al-Khattab, of the Masjid Al Fajr on Cold Spring
Road, said that it is reasonable to ask religious leaders to offer House
prayers applicable to all faiths. "When you say Jesus or Buddha
that's exclusive." he said.
||Rev. Clarence Brown of Bedford, who led the House in singing a
Christian hymn believes that the decision "infringes on the Christian."
||The Family Research Council, a
conservative Christian advocacy group, commented: "Thanks
to Judge Hamilton, the Indiana House of Representatives now joins Saudi
Arabia as one more place where Jesus's name cannot be honored in an
official ceremony. The numbers of anti-Christian rulings like this one
from Judge Hamilton are multiplying."
||2005-DEC-05: NC: Swearing an oath on a Qur'an: During 2003,
Syidah Mateen, a Muslim in Greensboro NC, was refused permission to take an
oath on a Qur'an as a witness in a domestic violence protection order
hearing. North Carolina laws states that a person can swear either on the "Holy
Scriptures" or can affirm to tell the truth while holding their hand
upright. To a Muslim, the Qur'an is the Holy Scripture. But two
judges at the Guilford Country courts decided that "Holy Scriptures"
meant the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. the Holy Bible.) The
judges later refused to accept a gift of Qur'ans from a Greensboro
Islamic Center. The state Administrative Office of the Courts
declined to intervene. The American Civil Liberties Union of North
Carolina then launched a lawsuit to ask that the law implies that any
Holy Scriptures are acceptable. According to the News-Record: |
"During a brief hearing in Wake County Superior Court on Monday,
Assistant Attorney General Grady L. Balentine Jr. didn't argue that the
plaintiffs lacked the right to sue. Instead, he argued solely that state
oath-taking law is constitutional because it allows people to affirm if
they don't wish to swear on the Christian Bible. 'No one is required to
do that,' he told Superior Court Judge Donald L. Smith. 'That's our only
position in this case'." 26
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Religion Today news summary, 1999-MAR-19.
"Appeals court bans prayers at high school games," Maranatha
Christian Journal, posted 1999-MAR-11
"Adler et al v. The Duval County School Board" at: http://www.law.emory.edu/
- American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU Newsfeed, 1999-MAY-14
Anne Hamming, "Council halts raising of cross on Fourth of July," The
Muskegon Chronicle, 1999-JUN-15. http://mu.mlive.com/
Clarence Page, "Bewitching logic: All religions or none should be tolerated on
military bases," Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City, UT, 1999-JUN-17. See: http://www.sltrib.com/
Joe Holley, "A genuine witch hunt," U.S. News & World Report,
1999-JUN-14. See: http://www.usnews.com/
Kim Sue Lia Perkes, "Until Army rejects Wicca, 13 groups call for boycott,"
American-Statesman, Austin TX, 1999-JUN-10 at: http://www.statesman.com/
"Education Secretary statement on Ten Commandments House vote," U.S.
Alan Dershowitz, "Ten Commandments aren't gun control," Los
Angeles Times, 1999-JUN-20. See: http://www.latimes.com:
A web site devoted to the principle of separation of church and state is
T. Davies & G. Hartley, "Judge rules against republic on
religious fish symbol," MSNBC, at: http://www.msnbc.com/
B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred
Objects," Harper San Francisco, (1988), Page 374
Baptist Press, "Town removes Christian symbol from seal,"
1999-JUL-22. On line at: http://www.mcjonline.com/
Daniel Kurtzman, "Supreme Court refuses to tamper with
church-state separation rulings," Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA)
"Atheist looking for answers on nativity scene," Akron
Beacon Journal, Akron OH. Online at: http://www.ohio.com
"Clergy distressed over Mass. display mixing Santa, Nativity;
fears of Witches, 'Devil Worshippers' raised," American
Charisma News Service, "Jesus statue doesn't have to be hidden,
judge rules," 2000-MAY-15. On line at: http://www.mcjonline.com/
The Freedom from Religion Foundation has a web site at: http://www.ffrf.org
Stuart Shepard, "Judge: No Prayers to Jesus," at:
John Welsh, "Ruling may mean end of Mojave cross: LAWSUIT: The ACLU
convinces a judge that a religious symbol has no place on public land,"
The Press-Enterprise at:
Dan Witcomb, "California gets tough with Jesus," 2002-SEP-9, at:
"Religious Reference Denied for Use on Vanity Plate," Citizen Link,
Focus on the Family, 2005-JUN-08.
Richard D. Walton, "House prayers can't invoke Jesus. Federal judge
declares that invocations advancing a specific religion are unconstitutional,"
Indianapolis Star, 2005-DEC-01, at:
Tony Perkins, "To pray or not to pray," Family
Research Council, Washington Update, 2006-JAN-03.
Eric Collins, "Decision expected today in Quran controversy," News-Record, Greensboro, North Carolina, 2005-DEC-06, at:
"Supreme Court to hear Mojave cross case," Los Angeles Times, 2009-FEB-24, at:
Links to web sites which deal with separation issues:
||"The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State,"
is a web site that is totally devoted to this topic.
||The above site has a list of links to other Internet locations dealing
with separation of church and state. See:
Copyright © 1998 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original publishing date: 1998-AUG-5
Latest update: 2009-FEB-27
Author: B.A. Robinson