Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist

In Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state legislation that provided monies for the maintenance and repair of religious facilities as well as for tuition reimbursements and income tax benefits to parents of children who attended religiously affiliated nonpublic schools advanced religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Facts of the Case

New York state legislators believed the nonpublic schools had fallen into fiscal crisis, which had caused them to reduce maintenance and repair programs. The legislators, determining that they had a responsibility to institute laws designed to ensure students’ health, welfare, and safety and believing that maintaining the health, welfare, and safety of nonpublic schoolchildren in low-income urban areas would add to the stability of urban neighborhoods, passed legislation designed to address these issues.

The legislation contained three provisions. The first provided money directly to qualifying nonpublic schools for the maintenance and repair of facilities and equipment. Under this provision, each qualifying school would receive $30 per pupil. However, if the qualifying school’s building was more than 25 years old, the school would receive $40 per pupil, but in no case would the amount received by any qualifying school exceed 50% of the average per-pupil cost for the equivalent service in the public schools.

The additional two provisions of the statute, tuition reimbursement and income tax relief, were bundled together and titled the Elementary and Secondary Education Opportunity Program. The tuition reimbursement section recognized that students from lowincome families have a reduced opportunity to attend private school. Therefore, in order to maintain an education system befitting a pluralistic society, the legislators believed accommodations needed to be made that would allow children of low-income families to attend private school. This section of the statute also addressed the legislative fear that because many public schools were at full capacities, any major shift in attendance between the private and public schools could seriously jeopardize the quality of the children’s education in the public schools.

In the tuition reimbursement section of the statute, parents with annual income of less than $5,000 were entitled to reimbursement in the amount of $50 per elementary child and $100 per high school child. The amount reimbursed was not to exceed 50% of tuition paid. The tax relief portion of the statute was available for parents whose income was greater than $5,000. The amount of the tax relief was not dependent on the amount of tuition paid to the qualifying school.

A federal trial court in New York held that the grants for maintenance and repair and for tuition reimbursement were invalid but that the tax relief provisions did not violate the Establishment Clause.

The Court’s Ruling

On further review, the Supreme Court affirmed that the maintenance and repair portion of the statute violated the Establishment Clause, because it subsidized and advanced the religious mission of sectarian schools. The Court, recognizing that each of the three propositions contained elements of legitimate secular concern, struck the law down on the basis that a statute can be interpreted as establishing a religion even if it is not designed to promote an official state religion. As such, the Court concluded that the first section of the legislation did not contain adequate restrictions to assure that the maintenance and repair monies would be used for purely secular purposes, a violation of the first prong of its tripartite Lemon v. Kurtzman (Lemon, 1971) test, the standard that it applied in disputes involving the Establishment Clause.

As for the tuition reimbursement and the tax relief portions of the statute, the Supreme Court ruled that both sections violated the Establishment Clause, because they ran afoul of the second part of the Lemon test by having the effect of providing financial support for religiously affiliated nonpublic institutions. The Court noted that even though the monies in Nyquist were given to the parents in the form of reimbursements or tax deductions, the funds still served as an incentive for them to send their children to qualifying religiously affiliated nonpublic schools. In its summary, the Court pointed out that allowing legislation of this nature to stand would have led to massive, direct subsidization of religious elementary and secondary schools and that parents who choose religious education for their children were not entitled to erode the limitations of the Establishment Clause.

Brenda R. Kallio

See also Lemon v. Kurtzman; State Aid and the Establishment Clause

Legal Citations

  • Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756 (1973). 
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).