Establishment in Individual States?

Where does the U.S. Constitution forbid establishment of religion in individual states? All I see is that the First Amendment forbids Congress from making any law – since it is Congress that makes laws, generally with the President’s approval – with respect to the establishment of religion:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This does not as a matter of necessary consequence result in the conclusion that a state cannot establish, say, the Anglican church as the official church in that state while the state next to it establishes no church at all. Is the First Amendment more about federalism than about federal government guarantee of certain freedoms?

Certainly we’ve had the background of cuius regio, eius religio in Europe, and no one wishes for more wars of religion, I think, fought with guns and steel and blood. It seems, however, that the Constitution aims to strike a middle ground between the centralization of a place like France, where a rather large realm had the Romanist church as the established church, and the extreme decentralization of a place like the Holy Roman Empire, where the only way for a Habsburg emperor to hold things together was to have a stronger army and good alliances with the other princes he purportedly ruled.

In the midst of this, we have provision for the federal government not to prohibit free exercise of religion or abridge any of several other freedoms, but also for the selfsame governing body not to legislate at all concerning an establishment of religion. One way to read this, it seems, is to say that the federal government may not legislate to curtail these latter several liberties under its own jurisdiction and that it must recognize the right of another governing body to choose whether or not to establish a certain church in that other governing body’s domain.

Yes, I’m flirting with ideas. Do try to give a good, convincing answer either way. I’m not a heretic yet, and I’m also not a law student, so bear with me.


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