- Supreme Court Interpretation of the Establishment Clause
- Writing and the First Amendment of the Establishment Clause
- Debate on Helping Religious Institutions with Public Funding
- Current Supreme Court Reversing Past Rulings
- Effect of Separation of Churches on Educational Leaders
America has been experiencing robust growth in religious beliefs recently, compared to other centuries in history. This growth is attributable to the continued increase in the number of immigrants who come to the US bringing new and varying religious traditions. Most Americans profess their faith in God, and therefore religion continues to strongly influence public policy, culture, and politics in America. America is one of the few countries whose governments have been opposed to endorsing or supporting any religion since 1971. Before this time, most Americans adhered to the establishment clause without much objection. However, from 1971 to date, most Americans and foreign observers have raised questions concerning why the American government would separate itself from the church despite the increasing number of believers. Separation of the church from the state negatively impacts the morals and ethics of educational leaders because the existing laws compel them to act contrary to their conscience.
Supreme Court Interpretation of the Establishment Clause
Before 1971, there was minimal debate concerning the separation of church and state. However, as the American citizenry continued to evolve and experience increased diversity, the need to interpret and revisit the existing American laws and practices became paramount. As a result, the Supreme Court intervened to interpret the clause of the establishment (Nelson et al., 2017). The above clause in the first amendment shows that the American constitution requires the state to be separate from the church.
Writing and the First Amendment of the Establishment Clause
Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson had varied reasons to believe that mixing the church with the state was improper. In addition, Jefferson and Madison, both from Virginia, shared the opinion that the government should not support any religion or compel citizens to support religions and faiths they do not subscribe to through taxes (Pfeffer, 2018). Most religious groups felt that the establishment clause and its amendment would not adequately assure Americans of their civil and religious rights. To counter this fear, Madison proposed a modification of the establishment clause to allow citizens the freedom to engage in spiritual practices such as thanksgiving and fasting (Eberle, 2016). On the other hand, Jefferson promoted the widespread of religion by signing a treaty that allowed religious leaders to proclaim their faith even to the Native Americans freely. The amendments carried out by Jefferson and Madison form the basis for other modifications taking place since 1971 to date by courtesy of the Supreme Courts over time.
Debate on Helping Religious Institutions with Public Funding
For many years, whether religious schools should receive public funding has been up for debate. Even before finding the solution to the above discussion, some states have devised several funding plans, including tax credits and vouchers, which allow religious schools to access public funding (Strauss, 2020). Those supporting the debate argue that the prohibition of public funding by religious schools amounts to discrimination. On the other hand, those opposing argue that allowing religious schools to access public financing contravenes the establishment clause, which advocates for the separation of the church and the state.
Current Supreme Court Reversing Past Rulings
Therefore, since the inception of the clause and its first amendment, schools privately owned by various religions in America have been cut out in government funding and tax incentive programs. However, in June 2020, Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. constitutionalized the Montana tax benefits program for religion-affiliated schools in the Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue case law (Strauss, 2020). In support of his ruling, the chief justice affirmed that it has been improper for Supreme Court to deny schools for religious education the tax benefit program that helps such institutions enjoy public funding. The case law mentioned above was a landmark ruling as it deconstructed the past doctrines in the establishment clause advocating for the separation of church and state.
Although Jefferson advocated for a wall to separate government and the church to avoid conflicts between the two institutions, the current Supreme Court finds the establishment clause contains some outdated and irrelevant doctrines to the current American generation. For instance, the existing supreme courts continue to strengthen ties between religious institutions in public funding matters by constitutionalizing the flow of public funds into religious institutions. In Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which took place about four years ago, the court stated that the free-exercise clause in the constitution provides some circumstances under which a government may be obliged to assist religious institutions and their practices financially (Millhiser, 2020). This statement portrayed a complete reversal of the court’s decision in Locke v. Davey in 2004 (Strauss, 2020). The majority opinion supported that it was right for theology college students to be excluded from receiving scholarships.
Effect of Separation of Churches on Educational Leaders
The enactment of the establishment clause, which advocates for the separation of the church and the state, adversely affects educational leaders when making ethical decisions. Notably, the establishment clause gives the power to determine what is right or wrong for society. As a result, educational leaders have no role in guiding the organization or students on morals based on natural right or wrong (Gallagher, 2016). Therefore, the laws separating church from state dictate educators strictly stick to what the laws terms as ethical and moral without giving them the freedom to exercise their conscience to make personal decisions. For instance, educational leaders must follow the government’s decisions regarding ethical and moral issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia, even if those laws contradict their beliefs, norms, and principles (Plantak, 2016). Therefore, the separation of the church as state impacts ethical decision-making processes for educational leaders because they have to drop their inner convictions about ethics and morals and adopt laws that may conflict with their conscience.
In conclusion, for many years, the establishment clause has posed challenges to the American Supreme Court, requiring judges to interpret and change some outdated rulings for modern America. Initially, the clause prohibited governments from getting involved in church matters and vice versa to avoid conflict. However, Jefferson and Madison pioneered ratifying the clause to allow citizens and religious leaders to exercise freedom of worship. Since then, the Supreme Court has gradually tried to execute further amendments to the clause through legal interpretation and several court rulings. The Supreme Court has made significant marks in modifying the establishment clause through the reversal of several precedent cases. One of the current Supreme Court reversed cases is Locke v. Davey 2004, which supported the denial of scholarships to theology college students. These cases include the Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue in 2020, whose decision deconstructed the central doctrine in the establishment clause. Another court decision that has witnessed significant reversal includes Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, a case. The establishment clause adversely affects how educational leaders make ethical decisions concerning abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage because they have to make moral decisions according to American law without using their conscience.
Eberle, E. (2016). Church and state in Western society: Established church, cooperation, and separation (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Gallagher, J. (2016). The separation of church and state presumes a distinction that does not exist in the actual world. America Magazine.
Millhiser, I. (2020). The Supreme Court just dealt a blow to the separation of church and state in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Vox.
Nelson, J. L., Palonsky, S. B., & McCarthy, M. R. (2017). Critical issues in education: Dialogues and dialectics (8th ed.). Waveland Press.
Pfeffer, L. (2018). Church, state, and freedom. (2nd ed.). Wipf and Stock.
Strauss, V. (2020). How the Supreme Court’s decision on religious schools just eroded the separation between church and state. The Washington Post. Web.
Zuckerman, P., & Shook, J. R. (Eds.). (2017). The Oxford handbook of secularism. Oxford University Press.