Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

Everson is often cited in subsequent decisions. Its chief historical value is that it was the Supreme Court’s most complete and lengthy discussion of the history of religious liberty in America, and its statement of what the Establishment Clause prohibits:

“The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’”

The case itself allowed a State to reimburse parents who send their children on public buses to public and private schools—including parochial Catholic schools—on the grounds that such reimbursements are provided to all students regardless of religion. New Jersey State’s reimbursement scheme had been challenged as a violation of the Establishment Clause because the State provided money indirectly to religious schools. The Court found that the reimbursements were proper because the money was not for the teaching of religion, but rather to facilitate the education of all, no matter what school they attended.