The Religious Freedom Page

Agostini v. Felton


Facts of the Case:

A New York parochial school board challenged the District Court's upholding of a twelve year-old decision in Aguilar v. Felton which prohibited public school teachers from teaching in parochial schools. The current proposal offered help to needy students in private schools by sending public school teachers to tutor them after school. New York was forced to offer remedial help to students through 'local educational agencies'. Students did not need to attend public schools in order to be eligible for the assistance. Those who were to receive tutoring were students who a) reside in low income areas or b) failed or were at risk of failing the state's student performance standards


In a 5-4 decision, the Court allowed public school teachers to tutor private school students in their private schools.

Majority Opinion: (Justice O'Conner)

Because of the Supreme Court's ruling in Aguilar, the State had been forced to tutor students in either public schools or mobile units outside of the parochial schools. As a result, the school board was forced to deduct $7.9 million dollars from their budget for transportation and establishing the mobile units. An earlier ruling in Zobrest disavowed a ban of placing all public employees in sectarian schools (a sign language interpreter had been provided for a deaf student). Additionally, not all government aid that directly assists in the educational function of religious schools is invalid. The location of the classroom (either in public or religious schools) should not matter. Furthermore, there is little difference between providing a sign language interpreter, which the Court already allowed, and a tutor. The interaction that would result between the state and church is allowable because a relationship between the two is inevitable.

Dissenting Opinion: (Justice Ginsberg:)

The case should not be returned, or overturned, because it is essentially the same case that was ruled on twelve years earlier and the Court does not rehear cases.  Arguments that subsequent decisions at lower level courts go against the prior decision thereby mandating this new case be heard are not persuasive because "lower courts lack the authority to determine whether adherence to a judgment of this court is inequitable."


This decision reinforces the belief that the state can conduct public programs in religious schools without becoming excessively entangled with the religion. This is contrary to the earlier attitude that there must be an absolute wall between public and religious schools.


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Last modified: 02/15/01