The First Amendment has two provisions concerning religion: the
Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment clause
prohibits the government from "establishing" a religion. The precise definition
of "establishment" is unclear. Historically, it meant prohibiting
state-sponsored churches, such as the Church of England.
Today, what constitutes an "establishment of religion" is often
governed under the three-part test set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). Under the "Lemon" test,
government can assist religion only if (1) the primary purpose of the assistance
is secular, (2) the assistance must neither promote nor inhibit religion, and (3)
there is no excessive entanglement between church and state.
The Free Exercise Clause protects citizens' right to practice
their religion as they please, so long as the practice does not run afoul of a
"public morals" or a "compelling" governmental interest. For instance, in
Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), the Supreme Court held
that a state could force the inoculation of children whose parents would not
allow such action for religious reasons. The Court held that the state had an
overriding interest in protecting public health and safety.
Sometimes the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause
come into conflict. The federal courts help to resolve such conflicts, with the
Supreme Court being the ultimate arbiter.
- Check out similar cases related to Engel v. Vitale that deal with religion in schools and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.