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U.S. Supreme Court

Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756 (1973)

Committee for Public Education & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist

No. 72-694

Argued April 16, 1973

Decided June 25, 1973*

413 U.S. 756


Amendments to New York's Education and Tax Laws established three financial aid programs for nonpublic elementary and secondary schools. The first section provides for direct money grants to "qualifying" nonpublic schools to be used for "maintenance and repair" of facilities and equipment to ensure the students' "health, welfare and safety." A "qualifying" school is a nonpublic, nonprofit elementary or secondary school serving a high concentration of pupils from low income families. The annual grant is $30 per pupil, or $40 if the facilities are more than 25 years old, which may not exceed 50% of the average per-pupil cost for equivalent services in the public schools. Legislative findings concluded that the State "has a primary responsibility to ensure the health, welfare and safety of children attending . . . nonpublic schools"; that the

"fiscal crisis in nonpublic education . . . has caused a diminution of proper maintenance and repair programs, threatening the health, welfare and safety of nonpublic school children"

in low income urban areas; and that "a healthy and safe school environment" contributes "to the stability of urban neighborhoods." Section 2 establishes a tuition reimbursement plan for parents of children attending nonpublic elementary or secondary schools. To qualify, a parent's annual taxable income must be less than $5,000. The amount of reimbursement is $50 per grade school child and $100 per high school student so long as those amounts do not exceed 50% of actual tuition paid. The legislature

Page 413 U. S. 757

found that the right to select among alternative educational systems should be available in a pluralistic society, and that any sharp decline in nonpublic school pupils would massively increase public school enrollment and costs, seriously jeopardizing quality education for all children. Reiterating a declaration contained in the first section, the findings concluded that "such assistance is clearly secular, neutral and nonideological." The third program, contained in §§ 3, 4, and 5 of the challenged law, is designed to give tax relief to parents failing to qualify for tuition reimbursement. Each eligible taxpayer-parent is entitled to deduct a stipulated sum from his adjusted gross income for each child attending a nonpublic school. The amount of the deduction is unrelated to the amount of tuition actually paid, and decreases as the amount of taxable income increases. These sections are also prefaced by a series of legislative findings similar to those accompanying the previous sections. Almost 20% of the State's students, some 700,000 to 800,000, attend nonpublic schools, approximately 85% of which are church-affiliated. While practically all the schools entitled to receive maintenance and repair grants "are related to the Roman Catholic Church and teach Catholic religious doctrine to some degree," institutions qualifying under the remainder of the statute include a substantial number of other church-affiliated schools. The District Court held that § 1, the maintenance and repair grants, and § 2, the tuition reimbursement grants, were invalid, but that the income tax provisions of §§ 3, 4, and 5 did not violate the Establishment Clause.


1. The propriety of a legislature's purpose may not immunize from further scrutiny a law that either has a primary effect that advances religion or fosters excessive church-state entanglements. Pp. 413 U. S. 772-774.

2. The maintenance and repair provisions of the New York statute violate the Establishment Clause because their inevitable effect is to subsidize and advance the religious mission of sectarian schools. Those provisions do not properly guarantee the secularity of state aid by limiting the percentage of assistance to 50% of comparable aid to public schools. Such statistical assurances fail to provide an adequate guarantee that aid will not be utilized to advance the religious activities of sectarian schools. Pp. 413 U. S. 774-780.

3. The tuition reimbursement grants, if given directly to sectarian schools, would similarly violate the Establishment Clause, and the fact that they are delivered to the parents, rather than the schools, does not compel a contrary result, as the effect of the aid

Page 413 U. S. 758

is unmistakably to provide financial support for nonpublic, sectarian institutions. Pp. 413 U. S. 780-789.

(a) The fact that the grant is given as reimbursement for tuition already paid, and that the recipient is not required to spend the amount received on education, does not alter the effect of the law. Pp. 413 U. S. 785-787.

(b) The argument that the statute provides "a statistical guarantee of neutrality," since the tuition reimbursement is only 15% of the educational costs in nonpublic schools and the compulsory education laws require more than 15% of school time to be devoted to secular courses, is merely another variant of the argument rejected as to maintenance and repair costs. Pp. 413 U. S. 787-788.

(c) The State must maintain an attitude of "neutrality," neither "advancing" nor "inhibiting" religion, and it cannot, by designing a program to promote the free exercise of religion, erode the limitations of the Establishment Clause. Pp. 413 U. S. 788-789.

4. The system of providing income tax benefits to parents of children attending New York's nonpublic schools also violates the Establishment Clause because, like the tuition reimbursement program, it is not sufficiently restricted to assure that it will not have the impermissible effect of advancing the sectarian activities of religious schools. Walz v. Tax Comm'n, 397 U. S. 664, distinguished. Pp. 413 U. S. 789-794.

5. Because the challenged sections have the impermissible effect of advancing religion, it is not necessary to consider whether such aid would yield an entanglement with religion. But it should be noted that, apart from any administrative entanglement of the State in particular religious programs, assistance of the sort involved here carries grave potential for entanglement in the broader sense of continuing and expanding political strife over aid to religion. Pp. 413 U. S. 794-798.

350 F.Supp. 655, affirmed in part and reversed in part.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J.,filed an opinion concurring in Part II-A of the Court's opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, and dissenting from Parts II-B and II-C, in which WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 413 U. S. 798. REHNQUIST, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 413 U. S. 805. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in those portions of which

Page 413 U. S. 759

relating to Parts II-B and II-C of the Court's opinion BURGER, C.J.,and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 413 U. S. 813.

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