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Agostini v. Felton

    Brief Fact Summary. Despite a prior holding to the contrary, New York’s federally funded program that provides supplemental instruction to disadvantaged students on a neutral basis is not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution when such instruction is given on the premises of sectarian schools by government employees pursuant to a program containing safeguards.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A federally funded program that provides supplemental, remedial instruction to disadvantaged students on a neutral basis is not invalid under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution when such instruction is given on the premises of sectarian schools by government employees pursuant to a program containing safeguards.

    Facts. In Aguilar v. Felton, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution barred the city of New York from sending public school teachers into parochial schools to provide remedial education to disadvantaged children pursuant to a congressionally mandated program. On remand, the District Court entered a permanent injunction reflecting this Court’s ruling. Twelve years later, the Petitioner, the Board of Education of the City of New York and thus, the parties bound by that injunction, seek relief from its operation. The Petitioner claims that Aguilar cannot be squared with the Supreme Court’s intervening Establishment Clause jurisprudence and ask that this Court explicitly recognize what the Supreme Court’s more recent cases already dictate: that Aguilar is no longer good law and that Petitioners are entitled under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 60(b)(5) to relief from the operation of the District Court’s
    prospective injunction.

    Issue. Whether Aguilar has been undermined by subsequent Establishment Clause decisions and is no longer good law?

    Held. Yes. Judgment of the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded to the District Court with instructions to vacate its 1985 order. The Supreme Court’s cases subsequent to Aguilar have been modified in two significant respects. First, the Supreme Court has abandoned the presumption that the placement of public employees on parochial schools grounds inevitably results in the impermissible effect of state-sponsored indoctrination or constitutes a symbolic union between government and religion. Second, the Supreme Court has departed from the rule that all government aid that directly aids the educational function of religious schools is invalid. Under current law, the program in Aguilar will not be deemed to have the effect of advancing religion through indoctrination. There is no reason to presume that, simply because she enters a parochial school classroom, a full-time public employee such as a Title I teacher will depart from her assigned duties and instructions and embark on religio
    us indoctrination. Nor under current law can it be concluded that a program placing full-time public employees on parochial campuses to provide Title I instruction would result in impermissible finance religious indoctrination. Aguilar’s conclusion that the program at issue resulted in “excessive entanglement between church and state” is not consistent with current law because not all entanglements have the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. Therefore, New York’s Title I program does not run afoul of any of the three primary criteria the Supreme Court now uses to evaluate whether government aid has the effect of advancing religion: (i) it does not result in religions indoctrination: (ii) does not define its recipients by reference to religion or (iii) nor does it not create an excessive entanglement. Therefore, Aguilar has been undermined by subsequent Establishment Clause decisions and is no longer good law.

    Dissent. Aguilar was a correct and sensible decision.
    A proper application of the Court’s rules and the FRCP would lead the Supreme Court to defer reconsideration of Aguilar until the Supreme Court is presented with the issue in another case.

    Discussion. This case reverses the prior holding of Aguilar v. Felton that was based on outdated law. In this case, the Court applied the current three-prong test used to determine whether the government is advancing religion. It held that the program at issue (i) does not result in religions indoctrination; (ii) does not define its recipients by reference to religion or (iii) and it does not create an excessive entanglement. This case is important because it illustrates the Court’s evolution of analyses in determining what is permissible government action with regard to religion.


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