Agostini v. Felton 521 U.S. 203 (1997)

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AGOSTINI v. FELTON 521 U.S. 203 (1997)

In Agostini v. Felton, the Supreme Court took the remarkable step of overruling one of its own decisions in a later iteration of the very same litigation. In aguilar v. felton (1985), the Court held that the establishment clause prohibited the City of New York from using funds provided by the federal government under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to provide special education services to disadvantaged students on the sites of private sectarian schools. Under the test set forth in lemon v. kurtzman (1971), the Aguilar Court concluded that the program presented an unacceptable risk of entanglement between government and religion.

In the wake of Aguilar, the district court entered a permanent injunction barring the use of any public funds to conduct on-site education programs at religiously affiliated schools. New York estimated that the costs of complying with that injunction—for example, by establishing trailers near the schools in which the services could be provided—amounted to $100 million over ten years. After several subsequent decisions of the Court appeared to undermine the premise of Aguilar that the Constitution forbade any expenditure of public funds to provide on-site educational services at religiously affiliated schools, and after a majority of the Court (in separate opinions in different cases) had expressed the view that Aguilar should be reconsidered, New York filed a motion for relief from the judgment and injunction.

The Court, in an opinion by Justice sandra day o'connor, agreed that decisions since Aguilar, particularly Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993) and Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (1986), had established that participation in government aid programs by sectarian schools did not necessarily advance religion nor excessively entangle government with religion. On the contrary, a program that allocates benefits based on neutral, nonreligious criteria, and that provides the same level of benefits to religious and secular beneficiaries alike, does not threaten the unconstitutional establishment of religion. O'Connor concluded that the decision in Aguilar was inconsistent with these subsequent cases, and that the doctrine of stare decisis did not require Aguilar to be retained. After concluding that the conditions for relief from the prior injunction were met, the Court granted the city relief. The four dissenting Justices objected both to the Court's decision to allow the federal rules of procedure to be used to gain relief from an injunction in this context, and to the Court's substantive establishment clause analysis.

Apart from its practical significance, the decision in Agostini provides important doctrinal support for those defending voucher programs in which the government provides financial assistance to individuals that can be used to defray the costs of private education, including education at religious schools. Whether such programs are permissible promises to be one of the most hotly contested and important establishment clause questions to come before the Court in a generation.

William K. Kelley

(see also: Government Aid to Religious Institutions; Religion in Public Schools; Religious Liberty; School Choice.)