A high-level overview of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment prevents the government from supporting an established religion and protects citizens' free exercise of religion.
|establishment clause||The first clause of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This prevents the federal government from supporting an official religion and sets the United States apart from many European nations, which provide official government support for a national, or “established,” church.|
|free exercise clause||The second clause of the First Amendment, which prevents the federal government from interfering with its citizens’ religious beliefs and practices. The Supreme Court has upheld some limits on religious practices that conflict with secular laws, such as religious drug use or polygamy.|
|Lemon test||A test to determine whether a law violates the establishment clause devised by the Supreme Court in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman. Based on the Lemon test, laws are constitutional only if they have a legitimate secular purpose, neither advance nor inhibit religion, and do not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.|
|nondenominational prayer||Prayer that does not advocate the beliefs of a specific religion but that acknowledges the existence of a divine being.|
|secular||Nonreligious or unaffiliated with religion.|
|“wall of separation” between church and state||A phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter, which described his view that there should be complete separation between the government and religion.|
Cases to know
Engel v. Vitale (1962) - A case contesting a New York state law requiring schoolchildren to recite a nondenominational prayer each morning (although children could choose not to participate). A group of parents sued the state arguing that the law was a violation of the establishment clause; the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, judging that New York state was giving unconstitutional government support to religion by providing the prayer.
Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) - A Supreme Court case concerning the mandatory schooling of three Amish students. The state of Wisconsin fined the students’ families for refusing to send them to school after the eighth grade; the Amish families argued that higher education conflicted with the free exercise of their religious beliefs. The Court ruled in their favor, holding that the First Amendment’s protections for free exercise of religion outweighed the state’s interests in compelling Amish students to attend school past the eighth grade.
Balancing liberty and order — Citizens’ ability to worship (or not worship) as they please is a fundamental individual liberty. The Supreme Court has upheld some limits to free exercise, however; although individuals may believe whatever they want, the government may limit actions that break secular laws if there is a compelling government interest at stake. Similarly, the Court has permitted some government support for religion, such as public funding for students attending religious schools.
What is the difference between the establishment clause and the free exercise clause?
When, if ever, may the government limit the free exercise of religion?
When, if ever, may the government provide support to religion?