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3 Important Supreme Court Cases Regarding Separation Of Church And State

The separation of church and state is a central concept in political history, and one that continues to inform discussions about the roles of religion and government in daily, modern life. The phrase itself is taken from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Connecticutt Baptists, but it has been used since in a number of Supreme Court cases to illustrate the intent of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. So if you're curious about exactly how the metaphor has contributed to various constitutional interpretations, take a look below for some examples from the highest court in the land.

Everson v. Board of Education

In this case, Supreme Court justices decided whether New Jersey parents sending their children to private, religious schools could take advantage of - and be reimbursed for - publicly funded transportation to said schools. While the majority opinion ultimately argued that reimbursement for transportation did not qualify as government support of a religion, the language used by the justices in their decisions not only built upon the foundation laid by Jefferson's original letter, but served as a blueprint for future cases, especially at the state level. If there was any doubt before as to the extent to which church and state should be separated, it was largely erased by this case.

Engel v. Vitale

This case is was the first one to decisively strike down the idea of prayer in public schools. In this particular instance, school officials had composed a prayer - offered to an "Almighty God" - that was to be recited by students during school. While lawyers representing the school district argued that the prayer was legal because recitation was not coerced, the Supreme Court decided that mere promotion of religion in a publicly funded instutition was enough to warrant the prayer's unconstitutionality.

Edwards v. Aguillard

In 1987, this landmark case dismissed a Louisiana law that demanded creationist teachings be included alongside evolutionary biology in the state's science classes. The court's decision argued that such inclusion was equal to the advancement of a certain religion, and as such violated the idea of separation between church and state. It also continued a trend in which schools were seen as the primary battleground for Establishment Clause cases; in fact, similar issues were resurrected decades later in Kitzmiller v. Dover, where the tenets of creationism were rebranded in textbooks as intelligent design.