The first clause in the Bill of Rights states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
For approximately the first 150 years of the country’s existence, there was little debate over the meaning of this clause in the Constitution. As the citizenry became more diverse, however, challenges arose to existing laws and practices, and eventually, the Supreme Court was called upon to determine the meaning of the establishment clause.
Though not explicitly stated in the First Amendment, the clause is often interpreted to mean that the Constitution requires the separation of church and state.
Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, was the first public official to use this metaphor. He opined that an authentic Christian church would be possible only if there was “a wall or hedge of separation” between the “wilderness of the world” and “the garden of the church.” Williams believed that any government involvement in the church would corrupt the church.
It was not until after World War II that the Supreme Court interpreted the meaning of the establishment clause.
In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court held that the establishment clause is one of the liberties protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, making it applicable to state laws and local ordinances. Since then the court has ruled in cases that involved required Bible reading in schools, religious displays on government property, display of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, and the use of government funds to pay for religious schooling.