As an independent society in the United States began to structure its democratic government towards the end of the eighteenth century, the issue of religion greatly divided early leaders. Our Founding Fathers — principally George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — offered influential, yet disparate, visions concerning the role of religion in American society. In 1791, the United States ratified the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Since the ratification of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has been left to define the breadth of the oft-clashing constitutional religion clauses. While attempting to balance citizens’ right of free exercise with the prohibition against religious establishment, the Court has vacillated in its interpretation of the First Amendment. The judicial swing between the landmark 1947 free exercise case Everson v. Board of Education and a growingly pro-government 1990 ruling (Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith) also reflected a changing treatment towards our Founding Fathers’ visions. The majority holding in Smith embraced a modernized Jeffersonian vision regarding the role of religion and spirituality in society. However, this opinion represented a significant reworking in the American definition of individual religious liberty, at the expense of George Washington’s hopes for America.
|Keywords:||United States Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution, First Amendment- Freedom of Religion, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Civil Religion, Everson v. Board of Education, Sherbert v. Verner, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith|
University Scholar, Student, Political Science Department, Church and State Studies Department, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, USA