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Supreme Court Decisions on Religious Liberty

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Gibbons v. District of Columbia (1886)
Should property owned by a religious organization, even if that property is used for commercial rather than religious purposes, be exempt from the same taxes as property which is used for religious purposes? According to the Supreme Court, Congress is free to set the standards for tax exemptions and refuse to grant such exemptions to commercial property owned by church.

Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940)
The Court ruled that the statute requiring a license to solicit for religious purposes was a prior restraint that vested the state with excessive power in determining which groups must obtain a license.

Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940)
In an 8-1 Court Decision, the Court ruled that a school district's interest in creating national unity was sufficient to allow them to require students to salute the flag.

Cox v. New Hampshire (1941)
The Court unanimously upheld the convictions of Jehovah's Witnesses for engaging in a public parade without a license.

Jones v. Opelika I (1942)
The Court upheld a statute prohibiting the selling of literature without a license because it only covered individuals engaged in an commercial activity rather than a religious ritual.

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
The Court ruled 8-1 that a school district violated the rights of students by forcing them to salute the American flag.

Jones v. Opelika II (1943)
The Court ruled the practice of charging a flat fee for people distributing literature was unconstitutional. The freedom of press was not to be restricted only to those who can afford to pay the licensing fee.

Douglas v. City of Jeannette (1943)
The Supreme Court refused to prevent the City of Jeannette, Pennsylvania, from threatening prosecution of Jehovah's Witnesses who were violating a law requiring the licensing of people selling books even while that law was being challenged before the Supreme Court.

Murdock v. Pennsylvania (1943)
The Court found that the Jeanette ordinance requiring solicitors to purchase a license from the borough was an unconstitutional tax on the Jehovah's Witnesses' right to freely exercise their religion.

Follett v. Town of McCormick (1944)
Should people who earn their living by selling or distributing religious materials be required to pay the same licensing fees and taxes as are expected of those who sell or distribute non-religious materials? The Supreme Court held that such licenses are unconstitutional.

United States v. Ballard (1944)
The Court found that neither the courts nor the government have the right to evaluate the religious beliefs of a citizen or group.

Prince v. Massachusetts (1944)
In a 5-4 Court Decision, the Court upheld Massachusetts' restriction on the abilities of children to sell religious literature.

Everson v. Board of Education (1947)
Supreme Court decision finding that a New Jersey law providing for reimbursement to parents of parochial school students for transportation costs on public busses is constitutional.

McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)
By a 6-1 vote the Supreme Court agreed with Mrs. McCollum, an atheist mother, and disallowed the practice of having religious education to take place in public school classrooms during the school day.

Burstyn v. Wilson (1952)
Unanimous Supreme Court decision invalidating a New York law which permitted the banning of films if they were found to be "sacrilegious."

Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral (1952)
The Supreme Court ruled that neither the Establishment Clause nor the Free Exercise Clause permitted the New York legislature to pass a statute designating which religious group may have control over a church.

First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. County of Los Angeles (1958)
Can religious tax exemptions be conditioned on a oath of adherence to some particular political ideas? Can the government require that churches seeking tax exemptions not say, believe, or advocate particular political doctrines?

Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)
In a unanimous decision, the Court found that Maryland's religious test for public office violated Torcaso's right to religious freedom.

McGowan v. Maryland (1961)
The Court ruled that Maryland's Sunday closing laws had evolved into furthering secular ends and therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Braunfeld v. Brown (1961)
An Orthodox Jew challenged Pennsylvania's blue laws, but by a 6-3 vote, with Chief Justice Warren writing the majority opinion, the Supreme Court declared them constitutional.

Arlan's Department Store v. Kentucky (1962)
Supreme Court dismissing a case as not having any serious questions for them. Kentucky's mandatory Sunday closing laws had been found by a lower court not to be an establishment of Christianity and, hence, not a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Engel v. Vitale (1962)
The Court ruled 7 to 1 that it was unconstitutional for a government agency like a school or government agents like public school employees to require students to recite prayers.

Sherbert v. Verner (1963)
The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the woman's right to refuse to work on her Sabbath without relinquishing her right to unemployment benefits.

Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963)
The Court ruled 8-1 against requiring the recitation of Bible verses and the Lord's Prayer.

Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)
The Court found that an Arkansas law prohibiting the teaching of evolution is impermissible because it violates the Establishment Clause and prohibits the free exercise of religion.

Board of Education v. Allen (1968)
Supreme Court decision finding that a New York Law requiring public school districts to purchase text books for private schools, including parochial schools, is permissible and not a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church (1969)
The Court unanimously decided that a Superior Court overstepped its constitutional powers by involving itself in an internal church dispute and that a Georgia law was unconstitutional for giving juries the right to make decisions in theological disputes.

Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of NY (1970)
With the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Burger, the Court upheld the tax exemption for churches by a vote of 8-1.

Welsh v. United States (1970)
The Court ruled that a man could be a "conscientious objector" even though he did not claim the status for religious reasons.

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)
On June 28th, 1971, the Court unanimously (7-0) determined that the direct government assistance to religious schools was unconstitutional.

Coit v. Green (1971)
Should private schools that engage in racial discrimination be permitted to retain their tax exempt status? This depends upon just why tax deductions exist. If private schools receive their tax deduction simply because they are involved with education, then their discriminatory policies shouldn't matter.

United States v. Christian Echoes National Ministry (1972)
How far can the IRS go in determining whether a religious organization should retain its tax exempt status? The Supreme Court let stand a District Court decision which found that the IRS did not have the authority to total up various "religious" and "political" activities in order to determine which carried more weight for an organization.

Diffenderfer v. Central Baptist Church (1972)
Should a church continue to receive a tax exemption for property that it is using for commercial purposes? Traditionally religious tax exemptions are conditioned on the idea that the church or organization pursue religious goals - commercial goals which result in a profit do not receive tax exemption.

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)
On May 15th 1972 the Court ruled 6 to 1 that the compulsory education law in Winconsin did indeed violate the Free Exercise Clause for Amish parents.

Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist (1973)
The Court found all three sections of a New York law providing, among other things, tax deductions and reimbursements for children in parochial schools, unconstitutional. Each of the three parts of the law had the primary effect of furthering religion.

Meek v. Pittenger (1975)
Supreme Court decision invalidating most of two Pennsylvania laws providing for instructional materials and equipment to religious schools because most of that aid could be easily diverted to religious purposes.

Wolman v. Walter (1977)
The Court allowed Ohio to provide standardized tests, therapeutic and diagnostic services to non-public school children. However, the state was not permitted to offer educational materials or subsidize class field trips.

Trans World Airlines v. Hardison (1977)
The Court decided 7-2 that TWA went far enough in attempting to accommodate Hardison's religious beliefs and that the company was justified in firing him when he refused to comply with his work assignments.

McDaniel v. Paty (1978)
The Court ruled that Tennessee's statute forbidding clergy from holding public office improperly forced citizens to choose between exercising two of their fundamental rights.

Jones v. Wolf (1979)
The Supreme Court vacated a lower court's decision that a minority faction had control of a church becaused the lower court failed to use the "neutral principles of law" test properly.

Stone v. Graham (1980)
The Court ruled that a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in each public school classroom in the state to be unconstituional.

McClean v. Arkansas (1981)
The Court found that Arkasas' "blanced treatment" law mandating equal treatment of creation science with evolution was unconstitutional.

Segraves v. California (1981)
A California judge ruled that teaching evolution in public school science classes does not infringe upon the rights of any students or parents to the free exercise of their religion, even if they sincerely believe that evolution is contrary to their religious beliefs.

Larkin v. Grendel's Den (1982)
The Court ruled 8-1 that the Massachusetts law that allowed schools and churches to prevent the issuance of alcohol permits to establishments within 500 feet unconstitutional because it substituted religious Court Decision-making for public legislative authority.

Larson v. Valente (1982)
The Court ruled 5-4 that a Minnesota law imposing greater burdens on minority, non-traditional relgious groups was unconstitutional because was not closely enough related to furthering a specific governmental interest.

Bob Jones University v. United States (1983)
The Supreme Court upheld the IRS's policy of prohibiting tax exempt status to even religious schools with racially discriminatory policies.

Lynch v. Donnelly (1983)
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the city of Pawtucket could continue to display a nativity scene as part of its Christmas display.

Marsh v. Chambers (1983)
The Court permitted the practice of beginning the legislative session in Nebraska with a prayer given by the publicly funded chaplain.

Aguilar v. Felton (1985)
In a 5-4 Court Decision in 1985, the Court overturned New York City's program of paying the salaries of public employees who provided any remedial assistance to low-income students in parochial school environments.

Estate of Thornton v. Caldor (1985)
The Court ruled 8-1 that Connecticut's law requiring that employers give all employees the day off if it was their chosen day of worship was unconstitutional because it had a direct effect of advancing a particular religious practice.

Grand Rapids School District v. Ball (1985)
Grand Rapids School District offered two programs conducted in leased private school classrooms: one taught during the regular school day by public school teachers and the other taught after regular school hours by part-time teachers. Both were found unconstitional.

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)
The Court found that an Alabma law requiring that each school day begin with a one minute period of "silent meditation or voluntary prayer" was unconstitional.

Bowen v. Roy (1986)
In an 8-1 Court Decision, the Court ruled that the government was permitted to require beneficiaries to supply it with their Social Security numbers, even if their religion forbade it.

Goldman v. Weinberger (1986)
The Supreme Court upheld a military provision requiring a uniform dress code and prohibited an Orthodox Jew from wearing a religiously required yarmulke.

Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)
In a 7-2 Court Decision, the Court invalidated Louisiana's "Creationism Act" because it violated the Establishment Clause.

Lying v. Northwest Indian CPA (1988)
By a 5-3 vote the Court allowed a road to be built through sacred Indian lands. The Court did acknowledge that the road would in fact be devastating to their religious practice, but simply found this to be regrettable.

Bowen v. Kendrick (1988)
In a 5-4 Court Decision, the Court allowed federal funds to be given to religious organizations offering counseling consistent with the purposes advocated in the Adolescent Family Life Act.

County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989)
The Supreme Court ruled that while a creche display on public property was unconstitutional, a menorah display on another piece of public property was not.

Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School v. Grumet (1989)
The Court found that a school district boundary was unconstitutionally drawn to deliberately aid a particular religious group.

Texas Monthly, Inc. v. Bullock (1989)
With Justice Brennan writing the majority opinion, the Court decided that exempting religious publications from the state sales tax violated the Establishment Clause.

Jimmy Swaggart Ministries v. California (1990)
Should religious organizations be totally exempt from taxation because the collection of such taxes violates both the Free Exercise and the Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment?

Webster v. New Lenox (1990)
Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school boards have the right to prohibit teaching creationism because such lessons would constitute religious advocacy and, hence, such restrictions do not constitute an infringement on a teacher's free speech rights.

Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990)
Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion for the Court, which upheld the Oregon law against drug use, even for religious reasons, by a vote of 6-3.

Lee v. Weisman (1992)
On June 24th 1992, the Court ruled in a 5-4 Court Decision that a graduation prayer given by a rabbi during school graduation violated the Establishment Clause.

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993)
In 1993, the Court unanimously invalidated city ordinances outlawing animal sacrifices.

Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993)
In 1993, the Court decided 5-4 to require a school district to offer a student in a private religious school the sign language interpreter he needed.

Peloza v. Capistrano (1994)
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a teacher does not have a right to teach creationism in a biology class, that "evolutionism" is not a religion or world view, and that the government can restrict the speech of employees while they are on the job.

Brown v. Woodland Joint Unified School District (1994)
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding that a school district's use of the "Impressions" teaching aid did not constitute a promotion of witchcraft and denigration of Christianity.

Capitol Square Review Board v. Pinette (1995)
Supreme Court decision holding that an unattended cross erected by the KKK on public grounds would not give the impression of government endorsement and, hence, is not a violation of the separation of church and state.

Agostini v. Felton (1997)
On June 23rd, 1997, in a 5-4 Court Decision, the Court allowed public school teachers to tutor private school students in their private schools, even if the schools were primarily religious in nature.

Boerne v. Flores (1997)
The Court ruled against an Archbishop and in favor of the city of Boerne, finding that the Congress did indeed exceed its authority by passing the RFRA and that governments did not have to use the "compelling government interest" test.

Good News Club v. Milford Central School District (1998)
Second District Court decision which found that a school district in New York could prohibit a community religious group from meeting in the school building because they would using it for specifically religious purposes.

DiLorento v. Downey USD (1999)
The Supreme Court let stand, without comment, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a school district was within its rights to discontinue a program of paid advertising signs on school grounds rather than accept a sign promoting the Ten Commandments.

Freiler v. Tangipahoa (1999)
Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a disclaimer to be read before teaching about evolution ultimately had the effect of furthering religious interests and was therefore unconstitutional.

ACLU v. Ohio (1999)
Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Ohio motto, "With God All Things Are Possible" is indeed a religious slogan and, hence, a violation of the separation of church and state.

Indianapolis Baptist Temple v. U.S (2000)
If a religious group believes that paying taxes is a sin, should they become exempt from paying all taxes in order to preserve their right to free exercise of religion?

Santa Fe School District v. Doe (2000)
The Supreme Court ruled that official, student-led prayers before a school football game violated the separation of church and state.

Mitchell v. Helms (2000)
Supreme Court decision allowing for educational materials and equipment to be given to religious schools, even if such equipment could be and is diverted for religious purposes - so long as this aid is granted to any religious or private school in an even-handed manner.

Williams v. Lara (2000)
The Texas Supreme Court decided that an "all fundamentalist" prison section was unconstitutional, even though the prisoners volunteered to be there where other religious beliefs were excluded.

O'Bannon v. Indiana Civil Liberties Union (2001)
The Supreme Court has recently refused to hear a case about a large monument in Indiana which would have included the Ten Commandments. What was the original 7th Circuit Court decision, and why did they reach that conclusion? What does this mean for future cases?

Watchtower Society vs. Village of Stratton (2001)
Should people going door-to-door for solicitations, canvassing, etc. be required to get a permit first? The Jehovah's Witnesses don't think so, and challenged just such a law in the Village of Stratton, Ohio. The 6th Circuit Court decided against them, but the case will soon be decided by the Supreme Court.

LeVake v. Independent School District (2001)
A federal district court finds that a school may remove a teacher from teaching a biology class when that teacher, a creationist, cannot adequately teach evolution.

FFRF v. Faith Works (2002)
A federal district court decides that the state government cannot give direct, unrestricted funding to a "faith based" drug counseling program which also includes a heavy dose of religious indoctrination.

FFRF v. Rhea County Board of Education (2002)
A federal district court decides that a public school cannot have students from the local Bryan College come in to teach Bible classes.

ESA v. Rylander (2001)
A Texas District Court ruled that a nontheistic Ethical Culture Society deserved a religious tax exemption. The Court rejected State arguments that religion must be defined by a belief in a "Supreme Being."

Major Sources:

The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. Kermit L. Hall, ed.

The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. Kermit L. Hall, ed.

The Godless Court? Supreme Court Decisions on Church-State Relationships. Ronald B. Flowers.

The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. Isaac Kramnick & R. Laurence Moore.

The Constitution and Religion: Leading Supreme Court Cases on Church and State. Robert S. Alley

The Supreme Court on Church and State. Robert S. Alley


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