The first phrase in the First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." is called the establishment clause.
The courts have the responsibility to interpret the U.S. Constitution in specific instances. In their ruling in 1947 of Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled:
"The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between Church and State'."
Three tests have been derived from various court decisions to decide the constitutionality of laws that have a religious component:
|The Lemon test: This was defined in a Supreme Court ruling in 1971. To be constitutional, a law must:|
|The Endorsement Test: Justice O'Connor created this criterion: a law is unconstitutional if it favors one religion over another in a way that makes some people feel like outsiders and others feel like insiders.|
|The Coercion Test: Justice Kennedy proposed this criteria: a law is constitutional even if it recognizes or accommodates a religion, as long as its demonstration of support does not appear to coerce individuals to support or participate in a religion.|
A simple set of criteria is that the government (and by extension public schools) may not:
|promote one religion or faith group over any other|
|promote a religiously based life over a secularly based life|
|promote a secularly based life over a religiously based life.|