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5 Supreme Court Decisions Pandering to Christianity

In these five cases, the Supreme Court dropped the ball on separation of church and state.

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Douglas may have realized his mistake. He went on to become one of the high court’s strongest advocates for separation of church and state. As for released time, while in some parts of the country it’s popular (especially Utah where the Mormons have fine-tuned it to an art form), by and large it never really caught on.

3. McGowan v. Maryland (1961): Many states used to have laws regulating what stores could sell on Sunday. In 1961, two challenges to these “blue laws” reached the Supreme Court, one from Pennsylvania and one from Maryland.

Blue laws had never made much sense. Some commerce on Sunday is inevitable. Medicine and other health-related items could be sold, for example, as could Sunday newspapers, gas for cars and so on.

In Maryland, the law limited Sunday sales to food, medicine, gasoline and newspapers. Opponents argued that limiting sales on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, violated church-state separation. They noted that blue laws were a throwback to the Puritan era.

Remarkably, the Supreme Court in McGowan disagreed. In an 8-1 ruling, the high court lamely asserted that blue laws, though they indeed originally had a religious purpose, had become secularized over the years. Their only purpose now, the court declared, was to provide a “day of rest” for weary retail workers. (Of course, many retail workers weren’t getting the day off. Lots of stores were open; they were just restricted in what they could sell.)

But even the court’s poor logic couldn’t save blue laws. The public wanted to shop on Sunday, and stores owners, eager for the extra profits, lobbied for change. Most states were only too happy to comply because they didn’t want to lose tax revenues to neighboring states that allowed Sunday shopping.

Blue laws began to fall. An echo of them still exists in some states where the sale of liquor is curtailed on Sunday or certain stores, such as auto dealerships, are closed.

4. Marsh v. Chambers (1983): If you’ve ever wondered why the House of Representatives, Senate and many state legislative bodies open their deliberations with prayers you need look no further than a 1983 Supreme Court decision called Marsh v. Chambers.

In Marsh, a legislator in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature sued over the practice of paying a chaplain to recite daily prayers. On the surface, it looked like an easy case, since government was not only endorsing prayer but paying for it.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled 6-3 that Nebraska’s practice was constitutional. The justices, it seems, were wary of making the ruling that the First Amendment demands: that taxpayer-paid religious ministers do not square with separation of church and state.

The high court dodged precedent and instead asserted that government chaplains have a long history in the United States and are thus traditional. The majority pointed out that the first Continental Congress had appointed state-funded chaplains, and thus no constitutional violation was found.

The justices did not consider that perhaps the first Congress had got it wrong. After all, an early Congress passed a “Sedition Act” that punished newspaper editors for speaking ill of government officials – an obviously unconstitutional bill.

Justice William Brennan was not taken in. In his dissent, Brennan pointed out that founding father James Madison opposed state-funded legislative chaplains, concluded that the practice had been unconstitutional all along and was not saved by its long history. He argued that the first Congress had acted more out of political concerns than respect for the Constitution some of them had helped draft.

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