In a case that could redefine church-state relations, the U.S. Supreme Court will reconsider its 1985 ruling that barred public schools from sending teachers into religious schools to provide remedial education.
The court agreed this month to accept appeals from the New York City school board and a group of Roman Catholic school parents who are urging the justices to overturn the ruling in Aguilar v. Felton.
The sides pressing the current appeal are being backed by the Clinton administration, which filed a brief shortly before the November election arguing that the Felton ruling has required school districts to use costlier and less effective methods of providing federal Title I services to eligible children in religious schools.
Students in private schools have been eligible for remedial aid since the program started in 1965. But the court held in the Felton case that the presence of public educators in religious schools was unconstitutional because of the “excessive entanglement” between public and religious schools.
The 1985 ruling threw Title I services for religious school pupils into chaos as districts across the country scrambled to come up with alternatives.
The court’s Jan. 17 announcement that it will take the case is the product of a 2-year-old strategy by the New York school system to get the issue back before the justices. Five members of the Supreme Court are on record stating that the Felton ruling should be overturned or at least reconsidered.
A reversal of the decision in the new appeal is not assured, however. The high court signaled that it is concerned about whether it is proper to use the same case to reconsider one of the court’s own precedents. The New York system’s Title I program for religious school students was at issue in the 1985 case as well as in the current appeal.
The court asked the lawyers in the case to address the procedural issue as well as the merits of the original ruling.
The new case is based on the consolidated appeals in Agostini v. Felton and Chancellor of the Board of Education of New York v. Felton (Case Nos. 96-552 and 96-553). The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case in April and is expected to issue a ruling by July.
A high court ruling overturning the 1985 decision would mean that school districts could once again send Title I teachers into religious schools. Title I is the federal government’s main program for providing extra educational help to poor children.
“We’re very happy they are going to reconsider it,” Stephen J. McGrath, a lawyer for the New York City schools, said of the Supreme Court’s action this month.
Any ruling will also inflame the larger debate over government aid to religious schools.
“We are concerned that a ruling on this issue will signal a massive change in existing [church-state] law,” said Lisa H. Thureau, the executive director of the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty, a New York City-based group known as PEARL that mounted the original lawsuit against the school system in 1978. “In the context of the push for vouchers, this could have enormous effects.”
In the years since the Felton decision, many districts, including the New York City schools, have relied principally on mobile classrooms that are parked near the grounds of religious schools to hold Title I classes for students from those schools.
The New York school board says that each vehicle costs more than $100,000 a year to lease and operate. In recent years, the district has leased 126 mobile classrooms to serve about 22,000 religious school children eligible for Title I services in New York.
In addition to backing the original challenge to New York City’s Title I program, PEARL has challenged the district’s alternative delivery methods. The group argues in a separate lawsuit pending before lower federal courts that public school officials have acceded to the demands of Catholic and Jewish schools by paying for mobile classrooms and other costly means rather than simply requiring religious school students to travel to public schools for Title I services.
PEARL has also vigorously opposed the process by which the New York City board brought its case back to the Supreme Court.
“I can’t help but be furious at this method of trying to reopen the case,” Ms. Thureau said.
Two years ago, the New York school board asked its lawyers to figure out a way to get the issue back into court. The district chose to ask a federal judge to grant it relief from the 1985 ruling because the decision had been undermined by subsequent opinions from the Supreme Court.
The city was relying primarily on an unrelated 1994 high court case that touched on Title I services, Board of Education of the Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet. In separate opinions in that case, five justices indicated that they considered the Felton ruling hostile to the nation’s tradition of religious accommodation and suggested it should be overruled or reconsidered.
The district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that they could not overturn the Supreme Court’s Felton ruling themselves, but that the New York district was on solid procedural ground and thus could appeal to the high court. (“N.Y.C. Gets Go-Ahead To Seek Felton Reversal,” May 29, 1996.)
The Supreme Court is hesitant to overturn any of its precedents. The fact that the New York district is back before the court asking for relief from the very ruling it lost more than a decade ago makes the case even more unusual.
In papers filed with the court, PEARL called the district’s procedure for getting back before the high court a “monstrosity” with no basis in federal court rules.
“I’m glad the Supreme Court wants to hear more about the procedural issue,” Ms. Thureau said.
The Department of Justice argued in its brief that such a second appeal in the same case would normally be inadvisable because of the legal system’s interest in the “finality of litigation.”
However, the department said, the New York case is exceptional, and there are “no other cases available to present the issue of reconsideration of [Felton] in the foreseeable future.”
In several cases where church-state groups have lost challenges to alternative ways of providing Title I services, the groups have declined to appeal to the Supreme Court, realizing it would give the court a chance to overturn Felton.