The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life - Vol. 1

The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life - Vol. 1

The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life - Vol. 1

The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life - Vol. 1


School vouchers. The Pledge of Allegiance. The ban on government grants for theology students. The abundance of church and state issues brought before the Supreme Court in recent years underscores an incontrovertible truth in the American legal system: the relationship between the state and religion in this country is still fluid and changing.

This, the first of two volumes by historian and legal scholar James Hitchcock, provides the first comprehensive exploration of the Supreme Court's approach to religion, offering a close look at every case, including some that scholars have ignored.

Hitchcock traces the history of the way the Court has rendered important decisions involving religious liberty. Prior to World War II it issued relatively few decisions interpreting the Religious Clauses of the Constitution. Nonetheless, it addressed some very important ideas, including the 1819 Dartmouth College case, which protected private religious education from state control, and the Mormon polygamy cases, which established the principle that religious liberty was restricted by the perceived good of society.

It was not until the 1940s that a revolutionary change occurred in the way the Supreme Court viewed religion. During that era, the Court steadily expanded the scope of religious liberty to include many things that were probably not intended by the framers of the Constitution, and it narrowed the permissible scope of religion in public life, barring most kinds of public aid to religious schools and forbidding almost all forms of religious expression in the public schools. This book, along with its companion volume, From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples," offers a fresh analysis of the Court's most important decisions in constitutional doctrine. Sweeping in range, it paints a detailed picture of the changing relationship between religion and the state in American history.


This volume justifies itself on the grounds that, surprising in view of all the attention lavished on the subject, there are a number of significant religion cases that came before the Supreme Court prior to World War II that have been ignored or whose significance has been slighted. For example, the famous Dartmouth College case (1819) is almost always treated exclusively as a landmark in the development of the law of contract, despite significant issues concerning religious liberty. This volume provides the most comprehensive survey of the religion cases that has yet been published and can be used, independent of volume 2, as an overall survey of the historical development of the jurisprudence of the Religion Clauses.

The volume endeavors to show, by close attention to cases, that World War II marked a quite precise watershed in the understanding of the Religion Clauses—after 1940 they were interpreted in increasingly innovative ways. The conclusion seeks to explain that development in terms of constitutional doctrine.

The terms “separationist” and “accommodationist” are used here in a commonsense way—separationists are people who believe that government should give as little support to religion as possible, accommodationists those who argue that it is proper for government to support religion provided it does not do so in ways that infringe religious liberties.

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