“Freedom of” or “Freedom From” Religion?

This post is part of our series on the Bill of RightsWe’re highlighting primary sources from our student workbook Putting the Bill of Rights to the Test, that helps students explore core concepts found within the Bill of Rights, and how they’ve impacted American history. This year marks the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The National Archives is commemorating the occasion with exhibits, educational resources, and national conversations that examine the amendment process and struggles for rights in the United States.

For hundreds of years before even the passage of the Bill of Rights, individuals came to our shores seeking the opportunity to worship freely and without persecution. These ideals were solidified in the passage of the First Amendment. It defends an individual’s right to worship, but also protects individuals from the government supporting a particular religion:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

But what if these two issues come into conflict? How does the First Amendment find balance between the establishment clause and free exercise clause?

The memorandum opinion of U.S. District Judge Jack Roberts in the Madalyn Murray O’Hair et al. v. Thomas O. Paine, et al. case allows students to examine these issues more closely.

In a nationally televised event on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman read the first 10 verses from the book of Genesis in the Bible.

The Apollo 8 crew saw the horizon vertically, with the lunar surface to the right. (Rising Earth Greets Apollo VIII Astronauts, 12/29/1968. From the Records of the U.S. Information Agency. National Archives Identifier: 2641570)

Feeling her First Amendment rights had been violated, American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair filed suit against Thomas O. Paine, the administrator of NASA, and the space agency. O’Hair is best known for her role in Murray v. Curlett, that was consolidated with Abington School District v. Schempp, and led to the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional.

She believed that because the Apollo 8 crew read from the scripture, her rights were infringed upon as an atheist. O’Hair claimed that NASA, a federal agency, instructed the astronauts to read from the Bible and this was a direct violation of separation of church and state. She further alleged that NASA was trying to establish Christianity as the official religion of the United States. As a tax payer, O’Hair argued that federal funds which supported the space program should not be used to accommodate a Bible on board the space capsule. She also claimed that the date of the Apollo 8 flight was chosen because of religious reasons.

Judge Roberts dismissed the suit, writing that the complaint failed to state a cause of action for which relief could be granted. He argued that the plaintiffs were not coerced to watch the televised event, and if the astronauts had been forced to read from the Bible then the personal rights of the astronauts would have been violated, not those of the plaintiffs. Roberts stated carrying the Bible aboard the space capsule neither advanced nor inhibited religion, and therefore did not violate the establishment clause. Roberts concluded that the scheduling of the Apollo 8 flight to coincide with the Christmas season was “approaching the absurd,” and “The First Amendment does not require the State to be hostile to religion, but only neutral.”

Begin a discussion with your students by asking the following questions to explore this topic:

  • What does freedom of religion mean?
  • What is the establishment clause? What does it do?
  • Does the First Amendment protect someone who is an atheist from being exposed to religion?

Ask students to explore the memorandum opinion of Judge Roberts, carefully noting:

  • What claims does O’Hair base her suit on?
  • What reasons does Judge Roberts give to dismiss the suit?

Conclude with a class discussion and ask students to share:

  • Do you believe O’Hair’s rights were violated? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with the judge’s opinion? Why or why not?

For a possible follow-up activity, you can engage students in a conversation about other newsworthy cases — for instance, whether or not the placement of a statue of the Ten Commandments inside a federal courthouse, “In God We Trust” printed on money, or “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment.

You can find additional primary sources related to religious freedom, as well as teaching activities about struggles for rights and amending the Constitution, on our special Amending America DocsTeach page.

The full citation of Judge Roberts’s opinion is: Memorandum Opinion in Madalyn Murray O’Hair, et. al. vs. Thomas O. Paine, et. al. (A-69-CA-109), 12/1/1969. Civil Case Files, 1938-1997 (48W030A); Records of the U.S. District Court Western District of Texas (Austin), Record Group 21, National Archives at Fort Worth.

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