The Historical and Legal Context
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States begins with the assertion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is—at first glance—simple and straightforward. Since these words were written, however, the proper interpretation of this section of the First Amendment has been the subject of a debate that became particularly lively and contentious during the twentieth century and continues to be so into the twenty-first century. In addition, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause seem to call for mutually incompatible outcomes in many concrete situations.
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