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Agostini v. Felton

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that the establishment clause did not prevent the use of public funds for sending public school teachers into parochial schools to provide remedial services.


In Aguilar v. Felton (1985), the Supreme Court voted five to four to strike down a program in which public school teachers went to private schools to provide a variety of secular services for disadvantaged students. Emphasizing the separationist viewpoint, the majority explained that the program might convey a message of governmental endorsement of religion. After Aguilar, New York continued the program by providing remedial services in parked vans near the private schools. In 1995 the parents of affected students went to federal court asking for the reversal of Aguilar, which appeared inconsistent with several recent decisions. In Agostini v. Felton, a 5-4 majority of the justices agreed with the petitioners and overturned Aguilar. Using an interpretation of the Lemon test (developed in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971) that favored accommodationists, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor argued that the placing of public employees in parochial schools did not result in any state-sponsored indoctrination nor did it constitute any symbolic union between government and religion. In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that it was impossible to draw a clear line between religious and secular instruction in religious schools.