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To pass muster under the Establishment Clause the law in question, first, must reflect a clearly secular legislative purpose, second, must have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and, third, must avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.
Amendments to New York's Education and Tax Laws established three financial aid programs for nonpublic elementary and secondary schools. The first section provided 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." The annual grant was $ 30 per pupil, or $ 40 if the facilities were more than 25 years old, which may not exceed 50% of the average per-pupil cost for equivalent services in the public schools. Section 2 established 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 third program was designed to give tax relief to parents failing to qualify for tuition reimbursement. Each eligible taxpayer-parent was entitled to deduct a stipulated sum from his adjusted gross income for each child attending a nonpublic school. Appellants, taxpayers and association for public education, brought an action to contest the validity of the amendments. The district court found that the provisions for maintenance and repair grants and tuition reimbursement grants were invalid. However, the provisions providing income tax relief did not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Appellants and appellee state officials sought review directly in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Were the challenged provisions violative of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution?
The Court held that the maintenance and repair provisions of the New York statute violated the Establishment Clause because their inevitable effect was to subsidize and advance the religious mission of sectarian schools. Those provisions did 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 failed to provide an adequate guarantee that aid will not be utilized to advance the religious activities of sectarian schools. The Court also found that the tuition reimbursement grants, if given directly to sectarian schools, would similarly violate the Establishment Clause, and the fact that they were delivered to the parents rather than the schools did not compel a contrary result, as the effect of the aid was unmistakably to provide financial support for nonpublic, sectarian institutions. Moreover, the Court held that the system of providing income tax benefits to parents of children attending New York's nonpublic schools violated the Establishment Clause because, like the tuition reimbursement program, it was not sufficiently restricted to assure that it will not have the impermissible effect of advancing the sectarian activities of religious schools. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court's invalidation of state statutes providing for maintenance and repair grants and tuition reimbursement grants for nonpublic schools and reversed the finding with regard to the tax relief statute.