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Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

Supreme Court Decisions on Religious Liberty

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Background Information

Under a New Jersey statute that allowed local school districts to fund the transportation of children to and from schools, the Board of Education of Ewing Township authorized reimbursement to parents forced to bus their children to school using regular public transportation. Part of this money was to pay for the transportation of some children to Catholic parochial schools and not just public schools.

A local taxpayer filed suit, challenging the right of the Board to reimburse parents of parochial school students. He argued that the statute violated both the State and the Federal Constitutions. This court agreed and ruled hat the legislature did not have the authority to provide such reimbursements.

Court Decision

The Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiff, holding that the government was allowed to reimburse the parents of parochial school children for the costs incurred by sending them to school on public busses.

As the Court noted, the legal challenged was based on two arguments: First, the law authorized the state to take money from some people and give it to others for their own private purposes, a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Second, the law forced taxpayers to support religious education at Catholic schools, thus resulting in using State power to support religion - a violation of the First Amendment.

The Court rejected both arguments. The first argument was rejected on the grounds that the tax was for a public purpose - educating children - and so the fact that it coincided with someone's personal desires does not render a law unconstitutional. When reviewing the second argument, the majority decision, referencing Reynolds v. United States:

The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between Church and State.'

Amazingly, even after admitting this, the Court failed to find any such violation in collecting taxes for the purpose of sending children to a religious school. According to the Court, providing for transportation is analogous to providing police protection along the same transportation routes - it benefits everyone, and therefore should not be refused to some because of the religious nature of their end destination.

Justice Jackson, in his dissent, noted the inconsistency between the strong affirmation of the separation of church and state and the final conclusions reached. According to Jackson, the Court's decision required making both unsupported assumptions of fact and ignoring actual facts which were supported.

In the first place, the Court assumed that this was part of a general program to help parents of any religion get their children safely and quickly to and from accredited schools, but Jackson noted that this was not true:

The Township of Ewing is not furnishing transportation to the children in any form; it is not operating school busses itself or contracting for their operation; and it is not performing any public service of any kind with this taxpayer's money. All school children are left to ride as ordinary paying passengers on the regular busses operated by the public transportation system. What the Township does, and what the taxpayer complains of, is at stated intervals to reimburse parents for the fares paid, provided the children attend either public schools or Catholic Church schools. This expenditure of tax funds has no possible effect on the child's safety or expedition in transit. As passengers on the public busses they travel as fast and no faster, and are as safe and no safer, since their parents are reimbursed as before.

In the second place, the Court ignored the actual facts of religious discrimination which was occurring:

The resolution which authorizes disbursement of this taxpayer's money limits reimbursement to those who attend public schools and Catholic schools. That is the way the Act is applied to this taxpayer. The New Jersey Act in question makes the character of the school, not the needs of the children determine the eligibility of parents to reimbursement. The Act permits payment for transportation to parochial schools or public schools but prohibits it to private schools operated in whole or in part for profit. ...If all children of the state were objects of impartial solicitude, no reason is obvious for denying transportation reimbursement to students of this class, for these often are as needy and as worthy as those who go to public or parochial schools. Refusal to reimburse those who attend such schools is understandable only in the light of a purpose to aid the schools, because the state might well abstain from aiding a profit-making private enterprise.

As Jackson noted, the only reason for refusing to help children going to for-profit private schools is a desire not to aid those schools in their ventures - but this automatically means that giving reimbursements to children going to parochial schools means that the government is helping them.

Significance

This case reinforced the precedent of government money financing portions of religious, sectarian education by having those funds applied to activities other than direct religious education.

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