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Law School Case Brief

Agostini v. Felton - 521 U.S. 203, 117 S. Ct. 1997 (1997)


To determine whether a statute is valid with respect to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (U.S. Const. amend. I), the Supreme Court of the United States applies a three-part test. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.


Defendant City of New York ("City") implemented a program—pursuant to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C.S. § 6301, et seq.—under which the City sent public school teachers into parochial schools during regular school hours to provide remedial education to disadvantaged children. The program's services were available to all children who met Title I's eligibility requirements, no matter what the students' religious beliefs or where the students went to school. In order to insure compliance with the City's rules against compromising the program's secular purpose, a publicly employed field supervisor was to attempt to make at least one unannounced visit to each teacher's classroom every month. In 1978, plaintiffs Rachel Agostini and other federal taxpayers, filed a lawsuit against the City, defendants Betty-Louise Felton and the Board of Education of the City of New ("Board") alleging that the program violated the establishment of religion clause of the Federal Constitution's First Amendment. The district Court granted summary judgment for defendants, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed, holding that the program created an excessive entanglement of church and state. On remand, the district court entered a permanent injunction barring defendants from sending public school teachers into parochial schools to provide remedial education pursuant to Title I. In 1995, the Board and certain others entitled to Title I services filed motions in the district court to seek relief from the injunction under Rule 60(b)(5) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which authorized a federal court to relieve a party from a final judgment or order when it was no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective operation. The Board contended, among other matters, that the law had changed since the Court's prior decision so as to make the program legal. The district court denied the motion on the ground that the "demise" Court's precedent, although perhaps imminent, had not yet occurred. The court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court of the United States granted the Board a writ of certiorari.


Was the City's program invalid under the Establishment Clause?




The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the court of appeals' decision and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to vacate its prior order that enjoined operation of the City's program. In reversing its prior decision, the Court expressly ruled that the program was not invalid under the establishment of religion clause, as the program did not result in governmental religious indoctrination, define aid recipients by reference to religion so as to give the recipients any incentive to modify their religious beliefs or practices in order to obtain services, or create an excessive entanglement that advanced or inhibited religion.

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