You are currently viewing Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203; 117 S. Ct. 1997; 138 L. Ed. 2d 391 (1997)

Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203; 117 S. Ct. 1997; 138 L. Ed. 2d 391 (1997)

Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203; 117 S. Ct. 1997; 138 L. Ed. 2d 391 (1997)

Facts—Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was designed to provide full educational opportunity to all school students regardless of economic background. In Aguilar v. Felton, 473 U.S. 402 (1985), citing concerns about the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court prohibited public school teachers from entering parochial schools to provide remedial education, and such programs were subsequently conducted, at considerable additional costs, at off-campus sites. Parents from New York City came to Court under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) seeking relief from this earlier decision, claiming that factual circumstances and judicial precedents have changed such as to invalidate the decision in Aguilar v. Felton. Both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Second Court of Appeals refused to overrule Aguilar.


(a) Is Aguilar v. Felton still good precedent?

(b) Does a state violate the Firth and Fourteenth Amendments when it provides remedial education by public school teachers in sectarian facilities?


(a) No;

(b) No.

ReasonsJ. O’Connor (5–4). The considerable additional costs of providing remedial education outside parochial schools were known when Aguilar was decided and are thus irrelevant. Similarly, statements by five justices in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District. v. Grumet (1994) questioning Aguilar addressed issues not directly before the Court in that case and are not therefore dispositive. However, establishment clause decisions since Aguilar and a companion case School District of Grand Rapids v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373 (1985) have undermined those decisions, which were based on the idea that the presence of teachers in parochial schools would impermissibly advance religion through intentional or unintentional involvement of teachers in advancing religious beliefs, through creating a symbol of church/state union, or through impermissible financing of religious belief and on the belief that monitoring to prevent the preceding would lead to excessive entanglement between church and state. The Court abandoned these assumptions in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (1993), where it permitted a deaf student to bring a sign language interpreter to a parochial school, and in Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (1986), where it permitted a blind student to study at a Christian college. The Court did not believe it was reasonable to assume that public school teachers will depart from their assigned duties simply because they enter a parochial school. Witters has undermined the notion that the presence of public employees on parochial school property will create an improper symbolic union, and no governmental funds are directly allocated to parochial schools under Title I programs. The Court found no evidence that the administrative cooperation involved in administering this program would lead to impermissible entanglement between church and state. The Court further noted that the doctrine of stare decisis, or adherence to precedent, was “not an inexorable command” and had less relevance in constitutional decisions, where the only alternative to judicial reconsideration was a constitutional amendment, than in others.

In dissent, J. Souter supported the continuing validity of Aguilar, arguing that a clear line of division was needed between secular and parochial school instruction. Souter argued that the precedent in Zobrest was especially unconvincing in this case since the interpreter acted more like a hearing aid than a teacher. J. Ginsburg’s dissent advanced her view that Federal Rules of Procedure did not properly permit a hearing in this case.

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