Agostini v. Felton: Case Brief

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In this lesson, we will learn about Agostini v. Felton, a case which asked the Court to overturn a previous related case that focused on the relationship between public and religious schools and whether public school teachers could teach at religious schools.

Case Background

Let's start with a question: If a student is really, really struggling in school, should the government provide money to help that student, no matter where he or she goes to school? It might seem like a pretty straightforward question, but if you really think about it, it gets complicated fast. For example, what might happen if the government pays for students who go to religious schools? Does that situation go against the Constitution's rules about the separation of Church and State? And where would that money come from? Let's explore these questions and more by looking at two related cases on this tricky subject: Agostini v. Felton and Aguilar v. Felton.

In 1985, the Supreme Court decided a case called Aguilar v. Felton, which is an important case about the New York City public school system. This case is about the use of government money to pay for public school teachers to teach in parochial schools, which are religious schools that teach both non-religious and religious subjects and are not part of the public school system. In Aguilar, the Court decided that it was wrong for the government to pay for instruction at religious schools, and too complicated for the City government to make sure public money wasn't spent on teaching religious education. This would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment, which bans any part of the government (even public schools) from supporting any church (and religious schools are associated with churches).

In 1997, 12 years later, the Court revisited Aguilar in the case discussed in our lesson today, Agostini v. Felton. The individuals who were affected by the Aguilar decision asked the Court to review it again, arguing that the decision was not valid anymore because the Court had made several related rulings since Aguilar that would void it. Let's learn about the federal act under review here and then we can consider why the participants in Agostini v. Felton wanted the Court's help.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 is a law that is supposed to improve the education of all kids, rich or poor, by giving money to school districts to use at their own discretion. New York City decided to spend this money to pay the salaries of public school teachers who traveled from school to school, including parochial ones, to help struggling students.

In New York City, the money had to be spent only on secular, or non-religious, programs to help (but not replace) the student's education. Before the Aguilar decision, teachers who worked in this program in New York City usually taught at multiple schools during the week, working one-on-one with kids at religious schools. Teachers were given explicit instructions to stay within the bounds of the law: they could only work with students identified by Title I, they could not collaborate with the regular religious school teachers, and they could not teach religion or attend worship. To ensure that everyone followed the rules, a supervisor from the public schools showed up once a month without warning to observe the Title I teachers. Do you think that this law was put into practice correctly? Does it contradict the First Amendment protection against creating, or establishing, a form of government-sponsored religion?

Aftermath of Aguilar v. Felton

In Aguilar v. Felton, the Court ruled that this program was unconstitutional because it created a very complicated system of checks in order to be sure public money wasn't spent to teach religion classes. After the Supreme Court decision, New York City went back to a plan where students were bussed from the parochial schools to public schools for specialized programs. The goal was to keep all public education out of parochial buildings, thereby making it less likely that public school teachers would be involved in teaching religion. However, the costs of this system were significant: over ten years, the City spent close to $100 million of its own money.

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