The freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment includes two important but distinct ideas: The government cannot burden a person's ability to practice their religion, but it also cannot tolerate the appearance of favoring one religion over another. This issue often arises in schools, for example, when states attempt to dictate public school curriculums.
What the First Amendment Says About Religion
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"
Evolution vs. Creationism in Public Schools
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
In Epperson v. Arkansas,1 the Court struck down a state statute that made it unlawful for any teacher in any state-supported educational institution to teach the theory or doctrine that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals, or to adopt or use in any such institution a textbook that teaches this theory. Agreeing that control of the curriculum of the public schools was largely in the control of local officials, the Court nonetheless held that the motivation of the statute was a fundamentalist belief in the literal reading of the Book of Genesis and that this motivation and result required the voiding of the law. The law’s effort was confined to an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, literally read. Plainly, the law is contrary to the mandate of the First Amendment to the Constitution.2
Mandating Balanced Treatment of Creation Science and Evolution Science Unconstitutional
Similarly invalidated as having the improper purpose of advancing religion was a Louisiana statute mandating balanced treatment of creation-science and evolution-science in the public schools. The preeminent purpose of the Louisiana legislature, the Court found in Edwards v. Aguillard, was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind.3
The Court viewed as a sham the stated purpose of protecting academic freedom, and concluded instead that the legislature’s purpose was to narrow the science curriculum in order to discredit evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creation science.4
More on Freedom of Religion
1. 393 U.S. 97 (1968).
2. 393 U.S. at 109.
3. 482 U.S. 578, 591 (1987).
4. 482 U.S. at 589. The Court’s conclusion was premised on its finding that the term ‘creation science,’ as used by the legislature . . . embodies the religious belief that a supernatural creator was responsible for the creation of humankind. Id. at 592.