Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing Tp.
In a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Black, the Supreme Court found that a law authorizing local school boards to reimburse parents for the transportation costs of pupils who attended schools—including private Catholic schools—in Ewing Township did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court reasoned that so long as the policy granting the reimbursements remains neutral to religion and serves the general public purpose of safely transporting children to accredited schools, the Establishment Clause remains unoffended. Though the result reached in the case is not inconsistent with a proper reading of the First Amendment, the Court’s reasoning relies upon extra-constitutional “wall of separation” sentiments that would later serve as precedent in many cases misconstruing the meaning of the First Amendment.
The Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . .” In Everson, the Court contorts the text—which, as it plainly reads, originally restricted only federal establishments—to require a robust “wall of separation between church and state.” To reach this end, the Court places undue emphasis on the private sentiments of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, wherein he utters those now famous words. Jefferson’s sentiments, as someone who did not take part in the drafting of the First Amendment, were privately spoken after the fact, and do not reflect the plain and original meaning of the text.
While there is substantial debate among constitutional scholars as to the contours of the Establishment Clause, one thing is clear: neither this nation’s history nor the actual text of the First Amendment required an absolute barrier between the spheres of government and religion implied by the “wall of separation” and applied by the Court in many subsequent cases.
Court & Reporter NumberSupreme Court, 330 U.S. 1
- Hugo Lafayette Black
- Harold Hitz Burton
- William Orville Douglas
- Felix Frankfurter
- Robert Houghwout Jackson
- Frank Murphy
- Stanley Forman Reed
- Frederick Moore Vinson