Supreme Court Deals a Major Blow to Separation of Church and State

Freedom of religion is one of the major principles on which this country was founded. Unlike in other parts of the world, citizens of the United States are free to practice any religion they choose. There is no official doctrine in this country and you cannot discriminate against others on the basis of their beliefs. From time to time, though, the principle of religious freedom comes under fire. Some conservatives feel because our founding fathers were Christian, we should be too. They want the U.S. to be a God-fearing nation, despite the fact that many of our citizens practice other religions or are not religious at all.

Cross Streets of Church and State

Image: actual street sign found in Redlands, CA

With the current Supreme Court, the separation of church and state could be in trouble. Five of the nine justices believe there should be less separation between religion and government, and the dividing line between church and state has already gotten a little smaller. The court recently made a decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which involves legislative prayer. The question at stake was whether or not legislators could open their sessions with a prayer, which is supposed to be nondenominational but is often overtly Christian in tone. Here are a few more details about the case and how religious freedom is coming under fire.

The Precedents

During her time in court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was dedicated to keeping religion and government as separate as possible. In the case of County of Allegheny v. ACLU, she was part of the court that deemed courthouses could not have overt religious displays. For example, a courthouse could not prominently feature a nativity display, as this would show preference for Christianity.

O’Connor retired from the Court in 2006, and some thought the anti-separation justices would try to undo her efforts must sooner than now. Although Justice O’Connor did her best to keep church and state separate, the key precedent in this case is Marsh v. Chambers. This verdict in this case was legislative bodies in Nebraska could legally open sessions with a state-appointed chaplain.

The Decision

The Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway. The Court found the practice of beginning legislation with prayer did not unconstitutionally coerce others to participate in religious practice. In her dissent, however, Justice Elena Kagan asserts the town of Greece violates the norm of religious equality in our country by opening its sessions with prayer. She actually agrees with the decision in Marsh v. Chambers but says the difference in this case is ordinary citizens regularly participate in the Town of Greece’s legislative meetings. The prayers said were overtly sectarian, and nothing was done to recognize religious diversity nor accommodate those of different faiths. Americans should be able to participate in legislative sessions regardless of their religious beliefs, and they should never feel pressured by the government to adhere to a certain religion.


The Supreme Court’s decision does not bode well for church and state separation in our country. Sure, something as simple as beginning a session with a prayer may seem harmless, but the precedent it sets is rather a dangerous one. According to Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the most conservative justices, the Court should allow even more religion in matters of government. In their decision, they said religious coercion should only be banned where it is enforced “by force of law and threat of penalty.” In other words, unless people are faced with fines or jail time for their beliefs, lawmakers can do whatever they like.

This could be very dangerous for people who believe government and religion should be separate. If similar decisions are made, there could soon be virtually no limit to how overtly government officials express religious preference. If this happens, where will we draw the line? If the government can’t be stopped from discrimination, how will the rest of us? In a few years, could it be common practice for a construction bid or a grant proposal to open with a religious invocation? Could those who are religious be preferred over those who are not in job-application pools?

This may seem extreme, but religious freedom is very important to our way of life, and decisions like the one in Town of Greece v. Galloway call into question how separate church and state really are. Even if the matter doesn’t go further than having prayer in legislative meetings, those of different faiths or no faith could feel ostracized and bullied by an overtly Christian government. America should be the land of the free, and freedom of religion should mean the government shows no preference for one religion over another.