Reynolds v. United States – 98 U.S. 145 (1878)
Opinion: Chief Justice Morrison Waite
The word “religion” is not defined in the Constitution. We must go elsewhere, therefore, to ascertain its meaning, and nowhere more appropriately, we think, than to the history of the times in the midst of which the provision was adopted. The precise point of the inquiry is what is the religious freedom which has been guaranteed…
…At the first session of the first Congress, the amendment now under consideration was proposed with others by Mr. Madison. It met the views of the advocates of religious freedom, and was adopted. Mr. Jefferson afterwards, in reply to an address to him by a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association…took occasion to say:
“…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State..”
Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.
Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing 330 U.S.1 (1947)
Opinion: Hugo Black
The New Jersey statute is challenged as a “law respecting an establishment of religion.” The First Amendment, as made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth, Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105, commands that a state “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .” These words of the First Amendment reflected in the minds of early Americans a vivid mental picture of conditions and practices which they fervently wished to stamp out in order to preserve liberty for themselves and for their posterity…Once again, therefore, it is not inappropriate briefly to review the background and environment of the period in which that constitutional language was fashioned and adopted…
We must consider the New Jersey statute in accordance with the foregoing limitations imposed by the First Amendment…Measured by these standards, we cannot say that the First Amendment prohibits New Jersey from spending tax-raised funds to pay the bus fares of parochial school pupils as a part of a general program under which it pays the fares of pupils attending public and other schools.
The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. New Jersey has not breached it here.
Engel v. Vitale No. 468 (1962)
Opinion: Hugo Black
We think that, by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity. It is a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty. The nature of such a prayer has always been religious, none of the respondents has denied this, and the trial court expressly so found…
In 1785-1786, those opposed to the established Church, led by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who, though themselves not members of any of these dissenting religious groups, opposed all religious establishments by law on grounds of principle, obtained the enactment of the famous “Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty” by which all religious groups were placed on an equal footing so far as the State was concerned.
The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say…When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain…
School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania, v. Schempp – 374 U.S. 203 (1963)
Opinion: Thomas Clark
Because of the prohibition of the First Amendment against the enactment by Congress of any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a State at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents…
The principles which we reaffirm and apply today can hardly be thought novel or radical. They are, in truth, as old as the Republic itself, and have always been as integral a part of the First Amendment as the very words of that charter of religious liberty.
Concurring Opinion: Justice Brennan
Whatever Jefferson or Madison would have thought of Bible reading or the recital of the Lord’s Prayer in what few public schools existed in their day, our use of the history of their time must limit itself to broad purposes, not specific practices. By such a standard, I am persuaded, as is the Court, that the devotional exercises carried on in the Baltimore and Abington schools offend the First Amendment because they sufficiently threaten in our day those substantive evils the fear of which called forth the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment…[O]ur interpretation of the First Amendment must necessarily be responsive to the much more highly charged nature of religious questions in contemporary society.