Supreme Court and Judicial Decisions on Religion

While not all of these cases directly deal with religion in the military, each has contributed to the cultural and legal concepts under which the military must deal with religion, balancing the sometimes contradictory precepts of military members’ free exercise without breaching establishment issues.

Abington v. Schempp, 17 June 1963
8-1 ruling that eliminated government-mandated Bible reading in public schools.

Notably, the decision also stated “There are certain practices, conceivably violative of the Establishment Clause, the striking down of which might seriously interfere with certain religious liberties also protected by the First Amendment. Provisions for churches and chaplains at military establishments for those in the armed services may afford one such example.” Even the dissenting opinion noted that a lack of a chaplaincy could violate a soldier’s right to free exercise.

Allegheny County v. ACLU, 3 July 1989
Unusually worded decision defined the “endorsement test,” which says an Establishment Clause violation is determined by whether non-adherents “feel like ‘outsiders’ by government recognition or accommodation of religion.”

Anderson v. Laird, 18 December 1972 (DC Circuit Court)
Appellate court decision that ruled mandatory attendance of religious services by cadets at the three US military academies was unconstitutional.

Crowe v. Cobb County, 28 October 2008
Appellate court decision that upheld a lower court ruling saying a Georgia Commission’s practice of opening with prayer was not unConstitutional. Notably, it said it was not the government’s place to “parse” the content of prayers.

Engel v. Vitale, 25 June 1962
5-2 ruling struck down New York law requiring officials to start school day with prayer. One of the early cases in which government religious activities were restricted.

Goldman v. Weinberger, 25 March 1986
5-4 decision stating that the Air Force was not required to allow Jewish officers to wear a yarmulke. Congress addressed this by altering the law allowing “neat and tidy” religious accoutrements (10 USC Sec 774).

Johnson v. Poway, 25 February 2010
District Court decision declaring that restricting “Judeo-Christian viewpoint” while allowing others violated the Establishment Clause. Also includes significant citations of support for referencing God in government.

Katcoff v. Marsh, 1985, Second Circuit Court of Appeals
Held that the Army Chaplaincy did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. It left open the question about whether the chaplaincy was necessary in areas where military members had access to private sector religious support.

Lee v. Weisman, 24 June 1992
5-4 decision against graduation prayer. Notably, the state can also not dictate the content of a prayer. Often cited in reference to the military attempting to “restrict” the content of a military Chaplain’s prayers.

Lynch v. Donnelly, 5 March 1984
5-4 ruling allowing Nativity display. Listed many examples of our “Government’s acknowledgment of our religious heritage,” including Congress’ addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Marsh v. Chambers, 5 July 1983
6-3 vote permitted practice of beginning legislative session with prayer given by a publicly funded chaplain. Frequently cited in reference to military chaplains.

Rigdon v. Perry, 7 April 1997, District Court
Chaplains were explicitly allowed to encourage their congregants to contact Congress; such actions were not considered political lobbying, which was prohibited for uniformed officers.

United States v. Seeger, 8 March 1965
Conscientious objectors and the necessity of a sincere “religious” belief.

Wallace v. Jaffree, 4 June 1985
6-3 decision invalidated Alabama moment of silence statute.