With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Demise of the Church-State Wall

In its late-June flurry, the Supreme Court ballooned the Second Amendment, crippled the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to address climate change, and scrapped the constitutional right to abortion. These rulings — especially the chaos-inducing overruling of Roe v. Wade — have dominated the headlines. Meanwhile another seismic change to American law has flown under the radar: the six-justice conservative majority’s campaign to tear down what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall of separation between church and state.”

Why did Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (involving a praying football coach), and Carson v. Makin (a school funding case) ruffle fewer feathers? It seems to have been by design. The conservative bloc did not undermine the first 10 words of the Bill of Rights — ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” — with anything like the glee or precision with which Justice Samuel Alito shredded abortion rights. Rather than renounce its Establishment Clause precedents as “egregiously wrong from the start” (as Alito did for Roe), the conservative bloc presented Kennedy and Carson as unremarkable decisions flowing ineluctably from precedent.

These decisions are no such thing. Kennedy and Carson do not respect prior rulings; they effectively abandon at least four of them. And the decisions brazenly mischaracterize two more.

Start with Kennedy, the case asking whether a school board violated a football coach’s religious liberty when it fired him for praying after games, often surrounded by his players or members of the opposing team, at the 50-yard-line. The Supreme Court said the coach’s supplications were personal, not official, and the school board’s concerns about mixing faith and football were misplaced. Those worries, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his majority opinion, were based on Lemon v. Kurtzman, a 1971 precedent barring policies that are motivated by a religious purpose, promote or inhibit religion, or excessively entangle religion and state.

The Supreme Court, Gorsuch tells us, “long ago abandoned Lemon and its endorsement test offshoot.” But he never pinpoints when the alleged abandonment occurred. Instead, he obfuscates the matter by citing two recent cases as proof. But neither the 2019 case blessing a large private cross on public land nor the 2014 ruling allowing prayer at town-board meetings overrule Lemon. Conservatives have long reviled Lemon; some liberal justices have agreed Lemon cannot resolve all questions involving the Establishment Clause. But nowhere did these opinions state that Lemon is incapable of resolving any such cases. And Lemon has never been officially overruled.

Gorsuch denigrates a 1992 precedent, too, but with less overt disdain. In Lee v. Weisman, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that even brief prayers at public-school graduations indirectly coerce students and thereby violate the Establishment Clause. The coercive effect would seem to be stronger when student athletes are under the eye of their football coach than when they are in robes ready to graduate. Indeed, some players said they felt compelled to join the prayer circle to secure playing time at the next game. Gorsuch cherry-picks a quote from Lee to suggest that witnessing others’ religious expression is “part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society.” But read on, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor does in her dissent, and you find Lee’s conclusion (in the very same paragraph) that “[t]his argument cannot prevail” when it comes to school prayer because the First Amendment bars “state intervention in religious affairs.”

Read entire article at Boston Globe