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Debating Church-State Relations and Related Free-Speech Issues

Established Churches in Colonial Times

As an American student, you don’t need to go very far to find examples of established churches. They exist in the colonial history of your own nation, the United States.

Some colonies supported one church, called an established church, which received tax support from the colonial legislature. The Congregational Church was established by the Puritans in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, for instance. Colonial church officials performed many of the roles that government agencies do today. For example, churches operated many schools, and a minister often held classes in his home. Most students had to pay fees, so most poor parents could not send their children to school at all. Instead, they taught their children at home. Besides learning skills that would help support the household, these young colonists had lessons in obedience and the family’s religious beliefs. Generally, all colonists were deeply religious, and by far most belonged to the Protestant faiths—Anglican, Puritan, Lutheran, for example.

In New England, students who were able to attend school often used hornbooks to memorize their lessons. Hornbooks were boards with a piece of paper glued on and a thin layer of horn on top. On the paper, and visible through the layer of horn, were the alphabet, numerals, and the Lord’s Prayer. The custom of starting the school day with the Lord’s Prayer and the recitation of psalms persisted in the nation’s public schools until recent times.

Besides supervising education in the colonies, churches cared for the poor and kept public records such as those for marriage and death. Meetings were held in churches, which were used as community centers for courtship, socializing, and sharing news.

Church laws governed colonial activity, and the courts enforced those laws. For example, one law sought to ensure that the Sabbath was observed by prohibiting any cooking, shaving, hair cutting, or bed making from Saturday afternoon to sundown on Sunday. Blue laws kept stores and businesses from opening on Sunday. Church officials assigned seating in churches according to sex, race, and wealth. Even slaves were allowed free time on the Sabbath.

Governments didn’t accommodate the Jewish Sabbath, and other protections were routinely denied those who practiced nondominant faiths. In fact, colonial communities were often intolerant of religious minorities and would not allow them the freedom to follow their own beliefs or conduct their own worship services. In most colonies, even voting and other political rights were restricted to members of a certain church group. Roman Catholics and Jews were not allowed to vote in most colonies. Puritans in New England denied citizenship to Quakers and others. In royal colonies such as Georgia, citizens were expected to belong to the Anglican Church.

The Maryland colony was granted to Cecilius Calvert, a Roman Catholic, who had to support the Church of England. Because Calvert believed that religious restrictions would interfere with Maryland’s growth and development, he drafted a religious toleration law that the colonial assembly approved in 1649. Called the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649, this was the first law of its type in the British Empire, and it granted religious freedom to all people. Afterward, a group of Puritans fled from Virginia to Maryland, which became famous for its religious freedom. However, the act was soon repealed, and Protestant settlers overthrew Calvert’s government in 1654. Control of Maryland seesawed between Protestant-led and Catholic-led governments into the next century. In 1692, the Anglican Church became the established church of Maryland. In 1718, Roman Catholics in Maryland lost their right to vote, which they did not regain until 1776.

When the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1791, the First Amendment guaranteed that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This provision ensured that no one religion would be favored over another and protected religious groups from unfair treatment by the federal government. Still it did not protect against unfair treatment by state governments. Indeed, the amendment was thought by many to protect against congressional interference with state governments' involvement with religion-that is, it was thought to prohibit the U.S. Congress from “disestablishing” churches established by state governments.

New Hampshire and other states passed laws until the mid-1800s that kept non-Protestants from holding public office. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and several other states declared official churches. Since the 1940s, the Supreme Court has ruled that all states must uphold the First Amendment’s religious freedom guarantees. However, disagreement abounds in the Court and in the public square regarding how strictly the Establishment Clause should be interpreted. The “accommodationist” viewpoint, simply put, holds that government accommodation or support of religion is not unconstitutional unless some sort of force or persuasion is involved. The “separationist” viewpoint contemplates a much stricter, if not absolute, separation of church and state. More recently, several justices, led by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, have argued in favor of a third approach-a so called “no endorsement” analysis. Under this approach, the court would decide Establishment Clause claims by determining whether a hypothetical “reasonable observer” would view the challenged activity as sending a message that the government supported or endorsed the religious message.

In 1947 in Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing , 330 U.S. 1, 29, the justices agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the constitution’s clause against establishment of religion by law was meant “to erect a wall of separation between church and state” and required government neutrality between religion and nonreligion as well as between different religions. The court also made clear that the prohibition against government establishment of religion extended to state governments as well as to the U.S. Congress. But the Court split on whether the government could reimburse parents for transporting their children to religious as well as public school, ruling 5-4 that such funding as permissible.

In subsequent cases, the justices proposed and argued over various tests they might use to determine whether a challenged government policy or practice was constitutional. To date, they haven’t found one on which they all agree. In 1962 in Engel v. Vitale , 370 U.S. 421, 431, the Court ruled that public schools may not require the recitation of prayers, yet the concept of public school prayer was not abandoned by the public. In 2000 Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe , 120 S.Ct. 2266 (2000), asked the Court whether student-led and student-initiated pregame prayers were constitutional. The majority again said no, in a 6-3 decision. More cases involving the many and varied school prayer arguments are sure to follow, as will the public debate involving the Establishment Clause, the freedoms of religion and speech, and how thick the wall of separation should be.

Activities related to established churches in colonial times.

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