The First Amendment says that the government may not ‘establish’ religion. What does that mean in a public school?
The meaning of the establishment clause, often referred to as the “separation of church and state,” has been much debated throughout our history. Does it require, as described in Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, a high “wall of separation”? Or may government support religion as long as no one religion is favored over others? How can school officials determine when they are violating the establishment clause?
In the last several decades, the Supreme Court has crafted several tests to determine when state action becomes “establishment” of religion. No one test is currently favored by a majority of the Court. Nevertheless, no matter what test is used, it is fair to say that the Court has been stricter about applying the establishment clause in public schools than in other government settings. For example, the Court has upheld legislative prayer (Marsh v. Chambers, 1983), but struck down teacher-led prayer in public schools (Engel v. Vitale, 1962). The Court applies the establishment clause more rigorously in public schools, mostly for two reasons: (1) students are impressionable young people, and (2) they are a “captive audience” required by the state to attend school.
When applying the establishment clause to public schools, the Court often emphasizes the importance of “neutrality” by school officials toward religion. This means that public schools may neither inculcate nor inhibit religion. They also may not prefer one religion over another — or religion over nonreligion.