DISCLAIMER: The information on this website is based on research and training, and is meant as a general guide. It should in no way be construed as legal advice.
The Main Battleground: Public Schools
Nowhere in our nation has the battle over the separation of church and state been felt more than in the public schools. With some accommodationists seeing schools as a place where prayer and religious teaching are needed most, and some secularists attempting to keep religion completely out of schools, the courts have been filled with cases regarding religion in schools. Because school children are impressionable and parents entrust their children to the schools, the cases covering the subject are among the most numerous of those regarding the Establishment Clause.
Perhaps the most famous of the U.S. Supreme Court cases is Everson v. Board of Education (1947), in which Jefferson’s phrase “wall of separation between church and state” was first quoted. In this case, the Establishment Clause was incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment, which means it became applicable to the states. The guidelines of the
Establishment Clause were also laid out rather specifically: “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…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.”
When evolution began to be taught in science classes, many people were offended because it seemed to directly contradict the story of creation as told in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Tennessee passed a law barring schools from teaching the theory of evolution during the religious revival period of the 1920s, and a young teacher name John Scopes purposely broke the law so it could be tested in court. The trial became a media circus, with famed attorney Clarence Darrow defending Scopes and several-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan acting as prosecutor. Scopes lost the case and was sentenced to
pay a token fine, and the case was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on technical grounds. Despite embarrassment Tennessee faced in the national media, the law stayed on the books.
The first U.S. Supreme Court case to decide on the subject of the teaching of evolution was Epperson v. Arkansas (1968). In that case, the court ruled that states could not bar the teaching of evolution, and struck down such laws in states like Arkansas and Tennessee. When states tried to circumvent the ruling by mandating the teaching of “creation science,” a thinly disguised
means for teaching the creation story in science classes, the Court stuck down these lawsin Edwards v Aguillard (1987).
The latest attempt by religious groups to fight the teaching of evolution is the concept of “intelligent design,” which resembles creation science without the specific reference to God. In Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board (2005), parents of students sued the school board for their policy of adding intelligent design to the science curriculum.
When the Dover School Board members were interviewed for the PBS television show Nova for a special about the case, they began by stating their support for intelligent design. But it was not long before all of them eventually admitted to the real reason for their actions: evolution offended their religious beliefs, and they were simply looking for a legal way to have it contradicted in science classrooms. Eventually, the board members lost their case in federal trial court, with the judge agreeing with the other side that “intelligent design” was nothing more than creationism with a new name. In fact, the most damning evidence of this was when it was discovered that earlier versions of the primary source of intelligent design, the textbook Of Pandas and People, were virtually identical to the current ones, except that the word “creationism” was now replaced by “intelligent design.” The board did not appeal their case to the federal appeals court.
Prayer in public schools, long a staple and tradition of the public school system, was the subject of the case of Engel v. Vitale (1962). The U.S. Supreme Court found that an official prayer created by the state of New York violated the Establishment Clause. A year later, the court overturned a law in Pennsylvania that required the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and Bible readings at the beginning of the School day in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963).
In the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court looked at the question of whether public financial aid to "church-related educational institutions" violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that statutes in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island that provided for state funding of certain programs at parochial schools were a violation of the clause because they furthered the inculcation of religion and entangled the state in religious affairs. The decision created a three-pronged test, now known as the "Lemon Test," to be applied to such cases: First, statutes must have a "secular purpose; second, the principal effects of the statute can neither advance nor inhibit religion; and third, it cannot create "an excessive government entanglement" with religion. A violation of any of these three rules is deemed to render the statute unconstitutional.
In Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), the court said it would allow a moment of silence in school as long as it was for a secular purpose, but the law itself was struck down because it was shown that its purpose was of a religious nature. The Supreme Court has also held that official prayers at
graduation ceremonies and at school athletic events were unconstitutional, in Lee v. Weisman (1992) and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000), respectively. On the other hand, courts have allowed religious groups to use school facilities and meet outside of regular school time as long as other groups are allowed to do so.
The Supreme Court decided in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that Cleveland’s voucher system was not a violation of the Establishment Clause because it was neutral in regard to private schools. Secularists argue that there is no such thing as neutral when the government is aiding a religion in teaching children about its doctrines.
 Linda R. Monk, The Words We Live By, New York: Hyperion (2003), p. 131.
 Nova: “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial,” WGBH Educational Foundation and
Vulcan Productions, Inc. (2007).
Click link to read the case at Findlaw
Everson v. Board of Education (1947)
Engel v. Vitale (1962)
Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)
Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)
Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)
Edwards v Aguillard (1987)
Lee v. Weisman (1992)
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002)
Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2002)
Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board (2005)