Opportunistic Originalism and the Establishment Clause

42 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2019 Last revised: 27 Nov 2019

Date Written: May 14, 2019


This Article argues that the Supreme Court’s use of originalism is opportunistic because sometimes the Court relies on it and sometimes it does not. This inconsistency is evident in its two most recent decisions with significant Establishment Clause consequences: Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014), and Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017). In Town of Greece, the Supreme Court applied an originalist analysis to uphold the government’s policy of sponsoring predominantly Christian prayers before town meetings. In Trinity Lutheran Church, the Supreme Court failed to conduct an originalist analysis of direct government funding to churches before ordering a state to award a cash grant to a Christian church. The Court’s inconsistent application—even when dealing with a single clause—raises the possibility that the Court’s use of originalism is based less on principle than on desired outcomes.

Part I offers a very brief primer on the Establishment Clause and on the theory of originalism. Part II performs a close reading of Town of Greece. It first examines the originalist reasoning that led the Court to uphold a predominantly Christian prayer practice. It then considers how the case might have been decided had the Court relied on conventional doctrinal tests. Part III turns to Trinity Lutheran Church. It first reviews the Court’s cursory treatment of the Establishment Clause question presented, and then considers what various originalist approaches might have made of the challenged funding.

Keywords: Establishment Clause, Establishment, Originalism, Supreme Court, judiciary, government funding, prayers

Suggested Citation

Corbin, Caroline Mala, Opportunistic Originalism and the Establishment Clause (May 14, 2019). Wake Forest Law Review, Vol. 53, p. 617, 2019, University of Miami Legal Studies Research Paper , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3388102

Caroline Mala Corbin (Contact Author)

University of Miami School of Law ( email )

1311 Miller Drive
Coral Gables, FL 33146
United States

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