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The Cambridge History of Religions in America, v. 3: 1945 to the Present (2012)


In this Essay, I discuss the relationship between religion and government in the contemporary United States, addressing the period from the 1940s to the present. In so doing, I explore questions of religious liberty, including the protection of religious “free exercise” as well as the constitutional prohibition on the establishment of religion, a prohibition that sometimes - but not always - has been construed to require a “wall of separation” between church and state. I focus especially on the Supreme Court’s evolving interpretations of the First Amendment during this period, which, I suggest, were influenced by broader religious, cultural, and political developments.

In the course of the Essay, I discuss Supreme Court decisions addressing the definition of religion, free exercise and freedom of speech, religion and the public schools, prayer and religious symbolism in other governmental settings, and financial aid to religious schools and organizations. I also highlight notable developments in the legislative and executive branches of government, including important congressional legislation.


This essay was posted with the permission of the Cambridge University Press. It was originally published as follows: “Religion, Government, and Law in the Contemporary United States,” in The Cambridge History of Religions in America, Volume III (1945 to the Present), at 648-73 (Stephen J. Stein, ed.; Cambridge University Press, 2012).

© 2012 Cambridge University Press