The Supreme Court decided yesterday it was wrong 12 years ago to bar public-school faculty from teaching remedial courses inside parochial schools.
Some advocates of public vouchers for parochial school tuition say the ruling strengthens their hand, although the court didn't address that issue.
By a 5-4 vote, the court reversed itself, abandoning assumptions that sending full-time public employees into religious schools to teach violates the Constitution's prohibition against establishing or favoring religion.
Yesterday's decision in Agostini vs. Felton will spark the U.S. Education Department to regulate the scope of public teaching in parochial schools. It will save New York City alone $10 million a year for a fleet of 126 "mobile instructional units" - vans and buses in which classes are held outside parochial schools.
The five justices in the majority did what the same five justices proposed three years ago - overruling the 1985 New York case called Aguilar vs. Felton. The five were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Yesterday Justice O'Connor said that prior viewpoint has nothing to do with the outcome of the court's opinion.
"The views of five justices that the case should be reconsidered or overruled cannot be said to have effected a change in Establishment Clause law," Justice O'Connor wrote.
"We have abandoned the presumption . . . that the placement of public employees on parochial school grounds inevitably results in the impermissible effect of state-sponsored indoctrination or constitutes a symbolic union between government and religion," she said. ". . . Our later Establishment Clause cases have so undermined Aguilar that it is no longer good law."
"Good or bad, it was in fact the law," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg responded in one of two dissents also backed by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.
Justice Ginsburg's dissent was largely critical of sidestepping court rules to find a way to reverse the earlier case; Justice Souter's separate dissent charged that church-state protection was being abandoned. …