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Church and State: How the Court Decides

The Constitutional guarantee for separation of church and state is provided for in the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,"

Over many years and many cases mainly involving religion in public schools, the Supreme Court has developed three "tests" to be applied to religious practices for determining their constitutionality under the Establishment Clause.

The Lemon Test
Based on the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, the Court will rule a practice unconstitutional if:

  1. It lacks any secular purpose. That is, if the practice lacks any non-religious purpose.

  2. The practice either promotes or inhibits religion.

  3. Or the practice excessively (in the Court's opinion) involves government with a religion.

The Coercion Test
Based on the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 the religious practice is examined to see to what extent, if any, pressure is applied to force or coerce individuals to participate.

The Court has defined that "Unconstitutional coercion occurs when: (1) the government directs (2) a formal religious exercise (3) in such a way as to oblige the participation of objectors."

The Endorsement Test
Finally, drawing from the 1989 case of Allegheny County v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, the practice is examined to see if it unconstitutionally endorses religion by conveying "a message that religion is 'favored,' 'preferred,' or 'promoted' over other beliefs."

Source: FindLaw's Constitutional Law Center

Also on US Government Info/Resources

Separating Church and State
A look at current and past legislation and laws involving school prayer and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. From your About.com Guide.

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