I have previously written about the Establishment Clause for my blog, as well as the relationship between education and religion that is ever present in today’s society. This relationship walks a very fragile line, as too much entanglement with public affairs constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. However, religious practices have been closely held by Americans since the nation’s inception. The US was not officially founded under religious principles, but religion has been intertwined with law in several states. Traditionally, American schools have allowed some access to religious education services for those interested, but what constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause? Where is the dividing line between constitutional and unconstitutional?
That dividing line is the primary issue of this case: Zorach v. Clauson (1952). In this case, schools in New York State, primarily New York City, were allowed by law to let students be dismissed for religious education services. The schools were not allowed to allocate public funding for the services, nor were they allowed to hold the religious instruction on school grounds. However, they also shared the attendance with the Department of Education for New York City, and this became the most significant issue in this case. The school’s administration was sued by local taxpayers in the school district for allegedly violating the Establishment Clause; it was interpreted that the sharing of information constituted public endorsement of a certain religion, contrary to the First Amendment. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was also cited as being violated by this practice.
This case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Justice Douglas delivered the opinion of the Court. The Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the school, upholding the law that allowed the religious instruction to take place. Douglas immediately cited the fact that public funds were not utilized to make these services possible, as well as noting that the courses were not on school property. He also stated that the sharing of attendance with the NYC Department of Education was not enough to argue that there was a violation of the Establishment Clause. This behavior was not actively supporting any particular religion; it was merely tracking the students that chose to participate. There is no concrete evidence that this represented coercion on the part of the school, and as a result, the practice had to be upheld.
Legally speaking, I believe that the Court made the correct decision in this case. The aforementioned line of constitutionality had to be drawn somewhere, and I think the Court acted prudently in drawing that line here. If the case had been decided in favor of the taxpayers, the precedent that it would set would be very damaging to religious exercise, causing future cases to go against religion. There has to be some leeway for religion to be practiced. Without allocating funds directly to the religious instruction program or providing a facility for the services at the school, I see nothing wrong with this arrangement, and I stand by the Court’s ruling.
*All information for this post was taken from https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/343/306#writing-USSC_CR_0343_0306_ZS