1. Religion & Spirituality

Wolman v. Walter (1977)

Supreme Court Decisions on Religious Liberty

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Background Information

A suit was brought by Ohio taxpayers who challenged the constitutionality of a variety of benefits offered by the state of Ohio to non-public schools and their students in accordance with the Ohio Revenue Code:

  • purchasing approved secular textbooks
  • purchasing or loaning instructional materials
  • supplying standardized tests and scoring services
  • providing speech and hearing diagnostic services
  • supplying remedial services for non-public school students needing special attention
  • field trip transportation

Services were provided in public schools or mobile classrooms purchased by the state, not in the private schools.

Court Decision

With Justice Blackmun writing the majority opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that Ohio couild provide standardized tests, therapeutic and diagnostic services to non-public school children. However, the state was not permitted to offer educational materials or subsidize class field trips by providing transportation.

Diagnostic services were deemed acceptable because no commentary or indoctrination about religion could take place at the government expense - the reason why teaching and instructional materials would be rejected. Diagnosis, according to the Court, is entirely religion neutral.

Providing educational and instructional materials was found to be unconstitutional because it has the "primary effect of providing a direct and substantial advancement of the sectarian enterprise." The need for state surveillance to ensure that state funds were used only for secular subjects failed the "excessive entanglement" portion of the Lemon Test.

The state had argued that the field trip provision should be treated like the busing which had been permitted in the Everson case. However, the Supreme Court decided that there were a number of significant differences. For example, in field trips the non-public schools hvae far greater control over schedules, the schools are the direct beneficiaries rather than the children, and religious teachers could readily provide a religious meaning to even a field trip taken to a secular place. As a consequence, field trips were to be treated like the provision of educational materials rather the busing

Significance

In this decision the Supreme Court further undescored the importance who supervises students when government funds are involved. If diagnostic and therapeutic services are offered by members of the board of education there is no need to be concerned with religious training. But other items, like educational materials, are not constitutional because of the excessive entanglement they can create or the possibility of government supporting religion itself.

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