Separation of Church and State Home Page

Everson v. Board of Education

Research by Jim Allison.
The Supreme Court's first, and most comprehensive, statement about the meaning of the establishment clause is found in Justice Black's majority opinion in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). Briefly, Everson concerned a New Jersey statute that subsidized transportation for students attending private religious schools. While the Court voted to uphold the statute, it rejected the narrow reading of the establishment clause in favor of a broadly separationist reading. A number of principles emerge from the case; most of them are to be found in the following, justifiably famous paragraph (which we have broken down into sections for clarity's sake):

We note that these words betray no anti-religious bias; on the contrary, the court seems to be at least as interested in protecting the church from the state as it is in protecting the state from the church. In particular, principles 3, 4, and 6 safeguard the right of people to freely practice their religion without interference from the state. Conversely, principles 1, 2, and 5 prohibit the state from favoring any religious belief system above another, or forcing people to support a religion in which they do not believe.

Taken together, principles 2 and 5 constitute what is known as the no-aid-to-religion rule. This rule prohibits the government using tax money to support one religion, or to favor religion above no irreligion. Despite no-aid-to-religion rule, however, the Everson Court upheld the New Jersey statute. It did so by formulating a second rule known as the sacred-secular doctrine. As explained by legal scholar Stephen Monsma, Justice Black distinguished

In many ways the history of establishment clause jurisprudence has been a matter of working out the details of the no-aid-to-religion and sacred-secular doctrines. What constitutes aid to religion? Does indirect aid violate the law? How can we tell when aid breaches the sacred-secular line? None of these questions admit of absolute answers. Fortunately, as the other articles in this section make clear, the Court has hit on additional guidelines that resolve many of the ambiguities in these questions.

Return to home