During much of the 20th century, courts, when considering issues involving religious freedom and the relationship between church and state, focused primarily upon the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Along with Article VI, section 3–the Religious Test Clause–these provisions represent the whole of the U.S. Constitution’s mention of religion. Despite the sparseness of the mention of religion in the Constitution, the importance of these provisions in matters of religious liberty and church-state relations is widely known and well-appreciated.
During the last decade, however, another set of sources has reemerged, sources that provide significant protection of religious liberty and additional instruction regarding the relationship between government and people of faith, between public institutions and faith based-institutions. These sources–the religion provisions of state constitutions–are beginning to garner more attention and to be consulted for answers regarding these fundamental questions. Although the history of some of these provisions extends back to the period before the First Amendment was adopted, they are now coming back into focus after many decades of neglect.
Each of the 50 states has a constitution that includes a number of provisions touching on religion. Unlike the limited mention of religion in the U.S. Constitution, most state constitutions include several detailed provisions on religion. These provisions may be organized in four categories: (1) Acknowledgment of God Provisions; (2) Religion Provisions; (3) Education Provisions; and (4) Finance/Property Tax Provisions.
“Acknowledgment of God Provisions” includes those at the beginning of many state constitutions that express gratitude to God, acknowledge God, or recognize humans as His creation.
“Religion Provisions” includes those provisions in the state bills of rights that broadly declare the freedom of religion and address the relationship between church and state, those that prohibit the government from requiring those conscientiously opposed to bearing arms to serve in the militia, and those that prescribe oaths for government actors that invoke God’s help.
“Education Provisions” includes those provisions that prohibit the government from supporting any sectarian or denominational school with money raised for the public schools and those that prohibit instruction on any sectarian or denominational doctrine in any public school.
“Finance/Property Tax Provisions” includes those providing that property used for religious or charitable purposes may be exempted from property taxation and prohibiting the government from laying any tax or appropriating public money in aid of any church or private or sectarian school.