Supreme Court decisions and public opinion concerning First Amendment religious liberties, 1947-2011.
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Cook, Tracy L.
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It has often been noted that the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding prayer and Bible reading in public schools are inconsistent with public opinion. This is in contrast to the overall findings of congruence between the Court’s decisions and public opinion more generally. However, no study has provided a comprehensive view of the relationship specifically for the Court’s First Amendment religious liberty jurisprudence. This research analyzes the relationship between Supreme Court decisions and public opinion concerning the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. Using nationally representative public opinion polls as evidence of public opinion, the results of this study are that, generally speaking, the Court has issued opinions that have been consistent with public opinion in a majority of its decisions dealing with the First Amendment’s religion clauses. In addition, trend analysis denotes the possibility that consistency is slightly higher. Further, when a clear public opinion expression is present (at least fifty-five percent of public opinion supports a position on an issue) the level of congruence between the Court’s decisions and public opinion is almost seventy percent. While the Court is inconsistent with public opinion on some issues, primarily regarding stand-alone displays of religious symbols on government property and prayer at school events, these issues appear to be the exception. Overall, the Court has shown a general level of agreement with public opinion in its decisions concerning the First Amendment’s religion clauses.