Government Aid and Religious Schools: 70 Years of Controversy

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Government Aid and Religious Schools: 70 Years of Controversy


Boston, Rob, Church & State


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. …

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Government Aid and Religious Schools: 70 Years of Controversy
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