The Establishment Clause and Government Funding of Religious Schools and Other Faith-Based Organizations

May 14, 2009

In an ongoing series of occasional reports, "Religion and the Courts: The Pillars of Church-State Law," the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life explores the complex, fluid relationship between government and religion. Among the issues to be examined are religion in public schools, displays of religious symbols on public property, conflicts concerning the free exercise of religion, and government funding of faith-based organizations. 

The debate over government funding of religious groups and institutions raises some of the thorniest issues in the ongoing discussion about the appropriate relationship between church and state. Most legal scholars agree that the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits at least some government funding of religion, but they disagree sharply on exactly what is permissible.

Participants in the debate fall roughly into two camps: On the one side are "separationists," who broadly interpret the Establishment Clause—which prohibits all laws "respecting an establishment of religion"—to require that government refrain from aiding or promoting religion or religious institutions. Strict separationists therefore claim that most, or even all, government funding of religion is unconstitutional. On the other side are those who interpret the Establishment Clause much more narrowly, contending that government funding of religion is constitutional as long as the funding is neutral, meaning it does not favor religion over non-religion or favor a particular faith over other faiths.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has embraced each of these viewpoints at different times in its history, many of the court's decisions in this area do not wholly adopt either approach. Instead, much of the constitutional law on the subject has rested on the broad principle that government funding of religion is permissible as long as the funding does not make the government responsible for advancing a particular set of religious beliefs.

Read the full report The Establishment Clause and Government Funding of Religious Schools and Other Faith-Based Organizations on the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.

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