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The line between state neutrality to religion and state support of religion is not easy to locate. The constitutional standard is the separation of church and state. The problem, like many problems in constitutional law, is one of degree. The test may be stated as follows: what is the purpose and the primary effect of the enactment? If either is the advancement or inhibition of religion then the enactment exceeds the scope of legislative power as circumscribed by the constitution. That is to say that to withstand the structures of the establishment clause there must be a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion.
The plaintiffs, members of a local board of education, brought suit in the Supreme Court of Albany County, New York, requesting declaratory and injunctive relief against the enforcement of New York’s Education Law requiring local public school authorities to lend textbooks free of charge to all students in grades 7 through 12, including students attending private parochial schools. The trial court held that the statute violated the establishment and free exercise of religion clauses of the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution. The Appellate Division reversed, ordering the complaint dismissed on the ground that the plaintiffs lacked standing to attack the validity of the statute. The New York Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the plaintiffs had standing to maintain the action, but that the statute was not unconstitutional.
Did the New York’s Education Law violate the Establishment or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment?
The Court held that the establishment and free exercise of religion clauses were not violated, since the express purpose of the statute was the furtherance of educational opportunities for the young, and the law merely made available to all children the benefits of a general program to lend school books free of charge, and the financial benefit was to parents and children, not to schools. According to the Court, there was no evidence that religious books have been loaned, and it cannot be assumed that school authorities are unable to distinguish between secular and religious books or that they will not honestly discharge their duties to approve only secular books. The Court further held that the statute was not alleged in any way to have coerced the plaintiffs as individuals in the practice of their religion. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the decision of the New York Court of Appeals.