The Vinson Court (1946–53)

First Amendment

In what famous decision did the Vinson Court define the meaning of the Establishment Clause?

The Vinson Court ruled that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”—applied to the states in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). The case concerned a New Jersey law that allowed school districts to reimburse parents for the costs of bus transportation to and from schools. The town of Ewing applied this law to allow reimbursements for all parents, including those whose children attended private religious schools. Arch Everson sued, contending that the practice of paying monies to parents whose children attended private religious schools violated the Establishment Clause.

The Court determined that the Establishment Clause meant to ensure that there was a “wall of separation” between church and state. However, a narrow majority of the Court determined that the wall did not prevent the town from paying the bus transportation costs of all its students, from both public and private schools. Justice Black explained: “We must be careful, in protecting the citizens of New Jersey against state-established churches, to be sure that we do not inadvertently prohibit New Jersey from extending its general State law benefits to all its citizens without regard to their religious belief.” He concluded: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. New Jersey has not breached it here.”


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