U.S. Supreme Court Precedents

Published May 1, 2002

In Committee v. Nyquist (1973) the U.S. Supreme Court held states cannot provide targeted financial aid to religious schools, either by paying grants directly to the schools or through the parents with a tuition reimbursement program. To stay within the constraints of the First Amendment, the state must maintain an attitude of “neutrality,” neither “advancing” nor “inhibiting” religion, the Court ruled.

A decade later, in Mueller v. Allen (1983), the Court held a tuition deduction program was constitutional since the program was offered neutrally to all parents, whether their children attended public schools or sectarian or nonsectarian private schools. Even though 96 percent of the financial benefits flowed to parochial schools, that occurred only as a result of decisions of individual parents, not at the behest of the state.

In Witters v. Washington (1985), the Court ruled a recipient of state financial aid may use that aid at a religious educational institution of his or her choice not just for secular courses but even for training to become a religious minister. The aid program itself “is in no way skewed towards religion,” said the Court, “and creates no financial incentive for students who undertake sectarian education.” However, in the same year, the Court ruled in Aguilar v. Felton (1985) that sending public school teachers to religious schools to provide remedial education and counseling is unconstitutional.

Since then, the Court has backed away from its Aguilar decision. In Zobrest (1993), the Court held that the Catalina Foothills School District does not violate the Establishment Clause by furnishing a sign-language interpreter to a deaf child in a sectarian school.

The Court overturned Aguilar in Agostini v. Felton (1997), ruling that having public school teachers provide supplemental, remedial instruction to disadvantaged students in religious schools does not violate the Establishment Clause. Writing for the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said aid to parochial schools is permissible if it is “allocated on the basis of neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion, and is made available to both religious and secular beneficiaries on a non-discriminatory basis.”

Most recently, in Mitchell v. Helms (2000), the Court ruled Chapter 2 of the Education and Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981 does not violate the Establishment Clause when it provides educational equipment to religious schools with taxpayer money. To meet constitutional muster, the federal aid must be distributed on a neutral per-pupil basis to all students in all schools, both public and private, secular and religious.