A series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings on church-and-state issues this year calls into question whether there is a discernible trend toward government accommodation of religion in public life. But in each case, a split decision indicates the Court’s continuing reevaluation of how it should interpret the “sparse language and broad purposes,” as one justice wrote, of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

Last month the Court handed down two decisions that struck down state aid to private school students. The justices were split five to four on both decisions. The rulings were based on rigorous applications of the Court’s traditional “three-part test”: whether a statute has a secular purpose; excessively entangles church and state; or advances religion. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in New York City, publicly funded educational programs involving church-affiliated school students flunked the three-part test.

In both cases, Justice Lewis F. Powell voted with the majority, providing a crucial swing vote that, in the last two terms, weighted several opinions in favor of greater accommodation of religion in public life. Recent Supreme Court rulings allowed chaplains to be paid by state legislatures, cities to permit nativity scenes on public land, and parents of parochial school students to take tax deductions for tuition.

This term, however, the Court reiterated its commitment to maintaining separation of church and state. In addition to the rulings involving private schools, the Court struck down an Alabama school-prayer law (CT, July 12, 1985, p. 52), prohibited states from requiring private employers to give employees a regular day off for religious observance, and ruled that private religious groups must abide by federal ...

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