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Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as In the Court's Words

In the Court's Words

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Following are excerpts from the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Helms, upholding federal instructional aid to religious schools, and Mitchell v. Helms, upholding federal instructional aid to religious schools.


Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe

From the majority opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens:

These invocations are authorized by a government policy and take place on government property at government-sponsored school-related events. ...

Santa Fe's student election system ensures that only those messages deemed "appropriate" under the district's policy may be delivered. That is, the majoritarian process implemented by the district guarantees, by definition, that minority candidates will never prevail and that their views will be effectively silenced. ...

Regardless of the listener's support for, or objection to, the message, an objective Santa Fe High School student will unquestionably perceive the inevitable pregame prayer as stamped with her school's seal of approval. ...

[N]othing in the Constitution as interpreted by this court prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day. But the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer. ...

(Read the entire text of the majority opinion, from Findlaw.com.)


From the dissent by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist:

The court distorts existing precedent to conclude that the school district's student-message program is invalid on its face under the establishment clause. But even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the court's opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life. Neither the holding nor the tone of the opinion is faithful to the meaning of the establishment clause, when it is recalled that George Washington himself, at the request of the very Congress which passed the Bill of Rights, proclaimed a day of "public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God." ...

[T]he court dismisses the secular purpose of solemnization by claiming that it "invites and encourages religious messages." ... But it is easy to think of solemn messages that are not religious in nature, for example, urging that a game be fought fairly. And sporting events often begin with a solemn rendition of our national anthem, with its concluding verse "And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.' " ...

Had the policy been put into practice, the students may have chosen a speaker according to wholly secular criteria—like good public-speaking skills or social popularity—and the student speaker may have chosen, on her own accord, to deliver a religious message. Such an application of the policy would likely pass constitutional muster. ...

(Read the entire text of the dissent, from Findlaw.com.)


Mitchell v. Helms

From the plurality opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas:

If aid to schools, even "direct aid," is neutrally available and, before reaching or benefiting any religious school, first passes through the hands (literally or figuratively) of numerous private citizens who are free to direct the aid elsewhere, the government has not provided any "support of religion." Although the presence of private choice is easier to see when aid literally passes through the hands of individuals, ... there is no reason why the establishment clause requires such a form. ...

So long as the governmental aid is not itself unsuitable for use in the public schools because of religious content, and eligibility for aid is determined in a constitutionally permissible manner, any use of that aid to indoctrinate cannot be attributed to the government and is thus not of constitutional concern. ...

The issue is not divertibility of aid but rather whether the aid itself has an impermissible content. Where the aid would be suitable for use in a public school, it is also suitable for use in any private school. Similarly, the prohibition against the government providing impermissible content resolves the establishment-clause concerns that exist if aid is actually diverted to religious uses. ...

(Read the entire text of the plurality opinion, from Findlaw.com.)


From the dissent by Justice David H. Souter:

The plurality position breaks fundamentally with establishment clause principle, and with the methodology painstakingly worked out in support of it. ...

At least three concerns have been expressed since the founding and run throughout our First Amendment jurisprudence. First, compelling an individual to support religion violates the fundamental principle of freedom of conscience. ... Second, government aid corrupts religion. ... Third, government establishment of religion is inextricably linked with conflict. ...In our own history, the turmoil thus produced has led to a rejection of the idea that government should subsidize religious education. ...

Together with James Madison we have consistently understood the establishment clause to impose a substantive prohibition against public aid to religion and, hence, to the religious mission of sectarian schools. ...

There is no mistaking the abandonment of doctrine that would occur if the plurality were to become a majority. It is beyond question that the plurality's notion of even-handedness neutrality as a practical guarantee of the validity of aid to sectarian schools would be the end of the principle of no aid to the schools' religious mission. ...

(Read the entire text of Justice Souter's dissent, from Findlaw.com.)


From the opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor concurring in the judgment:

I write separately because, in my view, the plurality announces a rule of unprecedented breadth for the evaluation of establishment clause challenges to government school-aid programs. Reduced to its essentials, the plurality's rule states that government aid to religious schools does not have the effect of advancing religion so long as the aid is offered on a neutral basis and the aid is secular in content. The plurality also rejects the distinction between direct and indirect aid, and holds that the actual diversion of secular aid by a religious school to the advancement of its religious mission is permissible. Although the expansive scope of the plurality's rule is troubling, two specific aspects of the opinion compel me to write separately. First, the plurality's treatment of neutrality comes close to assigning that factor singular importance in the future adjudication of establishment-clause challenges to government school-aid programs. Second, the plurality's approval of actual diversion of government aid to religious indoctrination is in tension with our precedents and, in any event, unnecessary to decide the instant case. ...

The plurality opinion foreshadows the approval of direct monetary subsidies to religious organizations, even when they use the money to advance their religious objectives. ...

(Read the entire text of Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion, from Findlaw.com.)

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 41

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