The U.S. Supreme Court has been grappling with the issue of government aid to religious schools since 1930. The court's jurisprudence in this area has spawned a long line of decisions, but the rulings have not always been consistent. In some cases, aid was upheld, in others it was struck down. Generally speaking, the justices have been reluctant to approve direct forms of taxpayer subsidies to sectarian schools but have permitted certain types of indirect aid. That policy will be tested when the high court issues an opinion in the Ohio voucher case.
Major rulings in this area include:
Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education (1930)
The Louisiana legislature passed a law providing free secular textbooks for all students, including those enrolled in religious schools. The Supreme Court, in a brief opinion, declared that the law was intended to benefit children, not the religious schools, and was thus constitutional. (This concept is known today as the "child benefit theory" and is frequently used by church school interests to win tax support.)
Everson v. Board of Education (1947)
This case challenged a New Jersey law giving state-paid bus transportation for religious schools. The court narrowly upheld the aid (5-4), declaring that the state's primary aim was to protect the safety and welfare of children, not to advance religion. However, all members of the court strongly affirmed the importance of separation of church and state in American life and indicated that more direct forms of state support for religious schools would not withstand constitutional scrutiny.
Poindexter v. Louisiana Financial Assistance Commission (1967)
The Supreme Court, in a per curiam opinion (without written comment), affirmed an appeals court decision declaring unconstitutional a Louisiana law establishing a voucher-type system. The Louisiana legislature had passed the law as a way of getting around racial integration of the public schools. Observed the lower court, "The United States Constitution does not permit the State to perform acts indirectly through private persons which it is forbidden to do directly."
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)
The high court, by an 8-1 vote, struck down laws in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania that used state funds to pay religious school teachers' salaries in a variety of secular subjects. The justices struck down the statutes in part because they would have required the government to monitor the religious schools constantly to make certain that no funds were spent on the teaching of religion. This, the court declared, would create too much entanglement between church and state.
Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty (PEARL) v. Nyquist (1973)
The court struck down a comprehensive New York law that gave various forms of assistance to religious schools. The law had three major components, all of which were declared unconstitutional: direct government grants to non-public schools for maintenance and repair; a voucher-like tuition reimbursement plan to low-income parents who had children in private schools; and a tax deduction for parents with children in private schools whose income was between $5,000 and $25,000.
Meek v. Pittenger (1975)
The court struck down most provisions of a Pennsylvania law that permitted the state to "lend" various educational materials to religious schools. Although the court upheld the loan of textbooks, it struck down all other aspects of the program, including the loan of projectors, recorders, laboratory equipment, periodicals, maps and film. This decision was overturned in 2000 in Mitchell v. Helms.
Wolman v. Walter (1977)
The court upheld most aspects of an Ohio law offering various types of indirect aid to religious schools, including state-financed testing for religious schools, provided that the tests were state-issued (and thus free of religious content). Religious school students were also permitted to receive state-financed speech, hearing and psychological diagnostic services as long as the purpose of the tests was to determine the student's need for help and the services were offered away from the "pervasively sectarian atmosphere of the church-related school."
The court struck down a program that "lent" projectors, maps, globes and other instructional equipment to religious schools, holding that the equipment was actually a gift, not a loan. However, this portion of the ruling was overturned by the decision in Helms.
Mueller v. Allen (1983)
The court upheld a Minnesota law that provided a state income tax deduction for "tuition, textbooks and transportation" to parents with children in religious or public schools. Although the vast majority of the benefits flowed to religious school patrons, the court said the law did not have the effect of advancing religion since the aid did not flow to religious schools exclusively, thus differentiating this case from Nyquist, where the deduction was available only to private school parents.
Grand Rapids v. Ball (1985)
The court invalidated two programs in Grand Rapids, Mich., that paid teachers to offer certain secular courses in religious schools at government expense. In a similar case decided the same day, Aguilar v. Felton, the court struck down a federal government program ("Chapter One") that allowed public school teachers to offer courses in secular instruction in religious schools for low-income, educationally disadvantaged children. Both of these rulings were overturned in 1997's Agostini v. Felton.
Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993)
The court ruled in favor of a hearing-impaired Catholic high school student who asked a public school district near Tucson, Ariz., to provide him with an interpreter. The public school had refused, saying the interpreter would be forced to translate religious concepts at state expense. In ruling for the student, the court declared the aid a permissible form of accommodation, saying it was analogous to the types of indirect health and welfare assistance upheld in earlier cases.
Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel School District v. Grumet (1994)
In this unusual case, the court invalidated a New York law creating a special "public school district" for a sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews north of New York City. The group, the Satmar Hasidim, demanded its own school to receive public funding to educate a handful of handicapped children. (Non-handicapped children attended private Orthodox schools.) The justices said the New York legislature had given preferential treatment to the Satmar Hasidim and had unconstitutionally turned the job of government running a public school system over to a religious group.
Agostini v. Felton (1997)
Overturning its own Aguilar and Grand Rapids decisions, the high court upheld a federal program that allows publicly funded remedial teachers to offer instruction at religious schools.
Mitchell v. Helms (2000)
This 6-3 ruling overturned Meek and Wolman and approved a federal program that gives public schools money to purchase computers, textbooks and other educational materials, with the requirement that some of the funds pay for material lent to religious schools.