Church-State Relations

Religious liberty is guaranteed in the First Amendment. Jahn (2017) observes that the First Amendment allows American citizens to observe their religious practices without government interference. As such, the First Amendment bars the government from endorsing a specific religion and this concept brings an important dimension to observance of religion in public schools. By putting the First Amendment into perspective, authorities in public schools are barred from; imposing a specific religion to students, promoting religion as superior compared to secular life, antagonizing or opposing a particular religion or secular values, and taking actions that inhibit or promote religion. 

The restrictions discussed above should not mean that religion should not be taught in public school. The tenets of religion can be used to evaluate other aspects of academics such as history science, literature, astronomy, music, arts, and geology among others (Glendenning, 2012). In this sense, religion is used to promote education and knowledge rather than using religion to promote religion and religious beliefs. This paper will examine two court rulings and how they have shaped public education in the current education system in the United States. Further the paper will evaluate the impact of the ruling to schools, teachers, students, and the community. 

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Stone v. Graham (1980)

In Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 42 (1980), the court ruled that a Kentucky Statute that required a copy of the Ten Commandments be posted on classroom walls in public school a violation of the First Amendment which separates the church and the state. The Ten Commandments copy in question in the case were purchased using private contributions. The Kentucky Statute further required that the Ten Commandments were to be placed in a small print at the bottom of each display in public schools. The Supreme Court premised the case on Lemon v Kurtzman (1971) where it was decided that a) a “statute must have a secular legislative purpose”; (b) “its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion”; and (c) the statute cannot promote “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” As such, if any of the provisions in Lemon v Kurtzman (1971) are violated, then the statute violated the First Amendment and as such, unconstitutional. 

With regards to Lemon v Kurtzman (1971), the Supreme Court held that the Kentucky Statute violated the first part (a “statute must have a secular legislative purpose”) or the now famous Lemon test. The court held that the posting of the Ten Commandments was motivated by purely religious basis rather than education motives. This was because the commandments were not part of the curriculum. In forcing schools to post the commandments, the court found that the state was imposing religion to students through making them to read and meditate upon, and by so doing, obey the commandments which was a violation of the lemon test. The fact that the commandments were acquired with private funds did not supersede the fact that such commandments were posted in public schools to be consumed by members of the public. 

In Stone v. Graham (1980), it is evident that the use of religious symbols and graphics is a concept that is allowed but only if they are of educational relevance. Teachers, as a result of this legislation were supposed to interrogate the curriculum before allowing any item that has a religious inclination in their classes. This means that before they allow material to be displayed, the relevance of such material to the curriculum needs to be ascertained and directly connected to some significance to the educational development of the student. The students, as a result of this case, were shielded from intentional enforcement of religious principles by educators out of their own will. Students or their parents/guardians, as the ruling stands, can oppose such material from being implemented in their classes through legal means. The community, after the ruling, was supposed to evaluate its contributions to education and confirm that such contributions are being put to important use where the intended beneficiaries derive actual benefits from it.

On a personal level, the ruling in Stone v. Graham (1980) is justified. Religion is a very sensitive issue that should not be imposed on individuals despite their age or intellectual level. As agreed by Witte (2015), the use of religious symbols, especially in a learning institution has an effect on the belief system of learners. The effect of the same should be curtailed through the banning of religious material in learning institutions and other public places. Learners should not be indoctrinated into beliefs out of their will. Further, the subscription of some religious concepts by public institutions in a country where all religious are allowed is going against the liberties of such people. To maintain a case of fairness, concepts, materials, and belief systems should be restrained to educational purposes and not to religious purposes. 

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe (2000)

In the case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe (2000), the court heard that a student elected student council chaplain was given the responsibility of delivering a prayer at the beginning of each home football game. The prayer was overly Christian and was delivered over the public address system. One Mormon and one Catholic family sued Santa Fe Independent district to challenge the practice. The court enjoined the Public Santa Fe Independent School District in the case and ordered it to halt the implementation of the policy as it stood during the hearing of the case. The District adopted a new policy which permitted but did not require student-initiated and led prayer at home games. Students authorized such prayers and the District Court issued orders to permit only nonsectarian, non-proselytizing prayers. 

The matter escalated to the Court of Appeal and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its defense, the school board said that the control of the message in the prayer was at the discretion of the students and that they also voted who would deliver such a message and as such, the message qualified as private speech which is protected in the First Amendment’s free speech. In the Supreme Court, it was ruled that the school board policy which allowed student-led and student-initiated prayer were a violation of the First Amendment. The court said, “ the delivery of such a message over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer is not properly characterized as “private” speech”. More emphasis on the First Amendment was placed on the part where the government is prohibited from establishing, advancing, or favoring any religion. The court found out that the matter was purely religious and was sponsored and endorsed by a public body which in essence is a government agency. 

The case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe (2000) had tremendous impact to the education system in America. The ruling of the supreme court restricted the use of school sponsored resources in the furtherance of a religious rituals. Students who attend football games voluntarily should not be coerced into listening and participating in religious rituals. School boards, out of the ruling were tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that public resources are always put into prudent use that did not violate the First Amendment. Public institutions should always obey the state as a secular institution. This notion goes a long way to ensure that the rights of individuals who do not subscribe to the religious belief system being promoted illegally by the institution in question are not denied their freedom. 

In conclusion, it evident that the court system in this country has been actively involved in the setting of the pace in ensuring that the community and people are not subjected to practices that conflict with the First Amendment. Public schools, by virtue of being public, are protected from religious indoctrination by authorities (Glendenning, 2012). The setting of the United States constitution as a secular constitution was a brilliant idea that should be perpetuated in all instutions. The court rulings in Stone v. Graham (1980) and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe (2000) are a clear demonstration that the use of symbols, materials, and speeches with a religious inclination curtails the religious liberty of some of the public members. The two cases further prohibit the state from engaging in religious activities. 


Glendenning, D. (2012). Education and the Law. Bloomsbury Professional

Jahn, S. J. (2017). Religious Diversity. Philosophical and Political Dimensions. Entangled Religions, 4, 45-53.

Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 120 S. Ct. 2266, 147 L. Ed. 2d 295 (2000).]

Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 101 S. Ct. 192, 66 L. Ed. 2d 199 (1980).Witte, J. (2015). The Lautsi Papers: Multidisciplinary Reflections on Religious Symbols in the Public School Classroom. Edited by Jeroen Temperman. Martinus Nijhoff, Leiden, 2012, Studies in Religion, Secular Beliefs and Human Rights 11, xxviii+ 444 pp (hardback€ 155) ISBN: 978-90-04-22250-2. Ecclesiastical Law Journal, 17(2), 240-242.

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