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Debating Church-State Relations and Related Free-Speech Issues

The staff wishes to acknowledge the special assistance of Margaret E. Fisher in preparing this feature for publication.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech . . . ”
—Opening Clauses of Amendment I to the Constitution of the United States

In this edition, Students in Action introduces you to a number of heated issues and high-profile Supreme Court cases involving the opening clauses of the First Amendment. These are the clauses that prohibit the establishment of religion, protect the free exercise of religion, and guarantee the freedom of speech, which is essential to both.

A glimpse back to past in “Established Churches in Colonial Times” shows how dominant colonial groups like the Puritans established churches in American colonies despite the fact that they themselves may have fled religious persecution in Europe. In “Establishment Clause: Here’s How to Understand It!” you will learn more fully just what an establishment of religion is and how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in several important cases where the “wall of separation” between church and state was said to have been breached. You’ll also find out about two establishment issues that are getting heavy news coverage this year: the debates over allowing religiously affiliated schools to receive vouchers financed by public monies, as well as President Bush’s newly proposed plan to allow faith-based institutions to receive government funds to deliver social services.

Issues involving religious minorities haven’t gone away-they have followed Americans through their history until today. In “Religious Freedom and Today’s Religious Minorities,” you will become acquainted with a recent Florida conflict that illustrates how one small religious group’s practices are protected by the Constitution despite the fact that they offend many mainstream Americans living in the same vicinity. Another situation, this time from territorial Utah, shows the opposite: how a stalemate can exist until a faith comes into compliance with what mainstream Americans believe. Finally, continuing Native American attempts to have government protect their sacred grounds and artifacts underscore the extent to which the government might deny that protection.

Students in Action ends with Santa Fe: A School Prayer or Free Speech Case?” specially prepared by Dr. Bernard James of Pepperdine University. Here, you’ll learn about the latest Supreme Court school prayer case and how the changing nature of school campuses might have influenced the Court’s decision.

Completing the Take Action! activities at the end of each section will help you begin to participate in, and influence, the public debates surrounding these and other issues your generation will encounter that involve the Establishment Clause, the freedom of religion, and the freedom of speech as the clause relates to both.

You can get started by completing the introductory Take Action! activity below.

Take Action! Introduction—Some legislators are calling for the motto “In God We Trust” to be posted in public places. Find out more about their arguments, the counterarguments, and additional resources to help you explore this question by visiting the JusticeTalking website.


Student Central | Students in Action
Debating Church-State Relations and Related Free-Speech Issues
Established Churches in Colonial Times | Establishment Clause
Religious Freedom and Today's Religious Minorities
Santa Fe: A School Prayer or Free Speech Case? | Related Articles/Resources