The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is often associated with the right to free speech, but it’s also the part of the document where the framers laid out the idea that their new government should be free from established religion, having seen the influence that the Church of England had in Britain.
In fact, the very first sentence of the amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The idea of a “wall of separation” between church and state has been around since Thomas Jefferson was alive, though the phrase is not actually in the First Amendment despite how often it is quoted in discussions about religion and government. How far the wall extends, however remains a topic of discussion among legal scholars to this day.
Over the years, various Supreme Court cases have addressed issues like prayer in schools, how government money can be spent when it comes to religious organizations and displays of religious symbols in public, but these issues continue to come up in Supreme Court cases and our understanding of the boundaries of the amendment continue to change.
As part of the Purple Project for Democracy, AirTalk takes a deep dive into the limits of separation of church and state and what the First Amendment does and doesn’t protect when it comes to religion and government.
Margaret M. Russell, associate professor of law at Santa Clara University