USCC General Counsel
June 23, 1997
The United States Supreme Court today gave a substantial measure of relief to the New York City Board of Education and parents by deciding to allow public remedial education to occur in religious schools. In doing so it reversed one of its most unfair and harmful decisions, Aguilar v. Felton. Today the Court has given hope both to advocates of a more realistic relationship between religion and government, and -- more importantly -- to the many thousands of school children most in need of educational services.
In 1985, the Court in a 5-4 decision, decided that the federal program at issue, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, violated the Establishment Clause when conducted in religious schools. The Title I program was the centerpiece of the Great Society Program and is targeted at assisting all educationally and economically disadvantaged children to read, write and do mathematics better, regardless of the schools they attend. Despite the fact that no one seriously doubted the enormous good done by the program and despite the fact that its opponents could not document a single instance of any unconstitutional use of taxpayer funds, the Court decided that its caselaw required the result. Today, the Court has reached the opposite conclusion and reversed some of its more harmful decisions.
I commend the Court for the result it reached in Agostini. It has applied the law carefully in assessing whether a violation of the Establishment Clause has occurred. It has signaled its willingness to rely more on the actual record and less on presumptions. It has therefore strengthened the nature of relationships between religion and government by refusing, in the Court's words, to "exalt form over substance." The Court has replaced its look for a "symbolic union" between Church and State, with a reasoned examination of whether the actions of government inculcate religion. On this conclusion, there should be no quarrel.
In deciding Agostini v. Felton, the Court has heard the claims of the parents and the Board of Education that the current system accomplished too little and was not required given the substantial shift in the Court's standards by which it judges cases under the Establishment Clause. I hope that this action signals the Court's willingness to do justice -- to the children most in need of help and to those in religious institutions ready to cooperate with government in those efforts. We will make every effort to work for that result.