Supreme Court Decisions on Religious School Issues

A series of US Supreme Court cases have impacted the way in which the federal government and states may provides services and benefits to parents and students in private and religious schools. Cases are listed in chronological order.

  • 1925 - Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names

The decision affirmed the right of parents to choose the type of education they wanted for their children and also affirmed the right of the state to reasonably regulate private schools. Read the decision.

  • 1930 - Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education

Decision upheld a Louisiana statute that allowed expenditure of public/ state funds to purchase and supply nonsectarian textbooks to parochial school students. Read the decision.

  • 1947 - Everson v. Board of Education

Decision upheld a New Jersey program that established the precedent that a state may provide, with public money, bus transportation services to and from school to students in parochial schools. Read the decision.

  • 1968 - Board of Education v. Allen

Decision upheld a New York textbook law authorizing the lending of textbooks free of charge to all children, including those attending parochial schools, in grades seven through twelve. Read the decision.

  • 1970 - Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York

Decision held that the New York statute exempting from real property tax realty owned by an association organized exclusively for religious purposes and uses for carrying out such purposes is not an unconstitutional attempt to establish, support or sponsor religion or as an interference with free exercise of religion. Read the decision.

  • 1971 - Lemon v. Kurtzman and Earley v. Dicenso

Decision invalidated Pennsylvania and Rhode Island statutes which provided for the purchase with state money of secular educational services from parochial schools, and which permitted salary supplements to nonpublic school teachers of secular subjects. Read the decision.

  • 1973 - Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist

Decision rendered unconstitutional a New York state tax provision that granted a tuition tax credit benefit to only one class of citizens, parents of non-public school students. Read the decision.

  • 1975 - Meek v. Pittenger

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed part of the petition and denied part:

  1. The Court upheld programs that utilized public funds and/or employees to provide students in private schools with textbook loans and approved instructional materials and various auxiliary services (speech, hearing) had neither the primary effect of aiding religion or danger of fostering excessive government entanglement with religion where services were provided to specific children on an individualized basis.
  2. The Court invalidated the instructional equipment loan program to the extent that it sanctioned the loan of equipment "which from its nature can be diverted to religious purposes", such as movie projectors that could be used to show sectarian films. Read the decision.
  • 1983 - Mueller v. Allen

Decision upheld as constitutional a Minnesota statute that allows an income tax deduction for tuition, textbooks, and transportation that benefited parents of children attending public, private and religious schools. Read the decision.

  • 1985 - Aguilar v. Felton

Decision held that the program under which the City of New York used federal ESEA Title I funds to pay the salaries of public school employees who taught in parochial schools violated the establishment clause since the scope and duration of the program would require pervasive state presence in sectarian schools to monitor the content of the Title I classes. Read the decision.

  • 1985 - Grand Rapids v. Ball

Decision declared the practice of shared time and community education programs, which provided classes to nonpublic school students at public expense in classrooms located in and leased from nonpublic schools, violated the First Amendment because it has the primary effect of advancing religion. Read the decision.

  • 1986 - Witters v. Washington Dept. of Services for the Blind

Decision upheld a Washington state program that provided a publicly funded tuition grant to a student to use at a religious college. Read the decision.

  • 1993 - Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District

Decision authorized an Arizona school district to place a publicly funded sign language interpreter in a Catholic high school to assist a disabled student under the federal disabilities education program IDEA. The decision allowed for, but did not mandate IDEA services to be provided in a private or religious schools. Read the decision.

  • 1997 - Agostini v. Felton

Decision reversed the earlier Supreme Court decision in Aguilar v. Felton. The decision permits publicly-employed teachers to provide remedial educational assistance under Title I programs on religious school campuses during regular school hours or in enrichment programs after school hours. Read the decision.

  • 2000 - Mitchell v. Helms

Decision upheld as constitutional Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that provided allows the use of federal funds to supply computer hardware and software and library and media materials to religiously affiliated schools. Read the decision.

  • 2002 - Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

The decision upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland Scholarship Program that provides financial assistance to parents to use for tuition at private or out of district public schools or for tutoring services. Read the decision.

  • 2004 - Locke v. Davey

The Court upheld the state of Washington’s right to deny a tax-funded Promise Scholarship to a college student studying to be a minister because he declared a major in religious studies, and that was considered a violation of the state constitution's prohibition on financing religious instruction. Read the decision.

  • 2007 - Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association

The Court found for the Association because the school voluntarily joined the TSSAA and had to abide by its anti-recruiting rules that were necessary to "manage and efficient and effective state-sponsored high school athletic league." Read the decision.

  • 2011 - Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn et al.

Although the tax credits for donations to scholarhip organizations were used primarily by students in religious schools, the Court decided that the program gives taxpayers the right to contribute their own money to organizations, no tax payer was forced to contribute and that tax credit funds were never public funds or government property. Read the decision.

  • 2012 - Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) et al.

In its unanimous decision, the court said that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar suits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches who claim termination in violation of employment discrimination laws. Reaching that conclusion, the justices considered the central issue of ministerial status. They declined to adopt a litmus test for who qualifies as a minister because do to so would require intrusion into the internal working of a church to make a judgment about its determination of an employee’s contribution to its spiritual mission. Read the decision.

  • 2017 - Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer

This was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that a Missouri program that denied a grant to a religious school for playground resurfacing, while providing grants to similarly situated non-religious groups, violated the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Read the decision.

  • 2020 - Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue

The Court ruled that the application of the Montana Constitution’s “no-aid” provision to a state program providing tuition assistance to parents who send their children to private schools discriminated against religious schools and the families in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Court said that amendment “protects religious observers against unequal treatment” and against “laws that disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit solely because of their religious character." Read the decision.

  • 2020 - Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (joined with St James School v. Biel)

The Court considered whether the First Amendment permits courts to intervene in employment disputes “involving teachers at religious schools who are entrusted with the responsibility of instructing their students in the faith.” The decision held that the First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church governance as well as those of faith and doctrine."  The government may not tell religious organizations how to carry out its mission. Read the decision.

  • 2022 - Carson v. Makin

Decision held that Maine’s program of tuition assistance for parents who live in school districts that do not operate a secondary school may not exclude sectarian schools from parents’ choices. Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement for otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause. Read the decision.