Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Regan

At issue in Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty (PEARL) v. Regan (1980) was the constitutionality of a statute from New York that authorized the use of public funds to reimburse churchrelated and secular nonpublic schools for performing various state-mandated testing and reporting services. The Supreme Court held that the 1974 New York law was constitutional, because it had a secular purpose, its primary effect did not advance religion, and it did not entangle the state with organized religion. While not recommending the case as “a litmus-paper test to distinguish permissible from impermissible aid to religiously oriented schools” (p. 662), the Court described its judgment as consistent with its historical effort to balance the constitutional mandate to separate church and state with the states’ obligations to educate all youth properly.

Facts of the Case

All nonpublic schools in New York state were reimbursed for their direct costs in administering, grading, and reporting the results of tests, whether the tests were prepared by the state, by individual teachers, or by the nonpublic school. In addition, school officials were required to furnish the state with information on their student bodies, faculties and staffs, physical facilities, curricula, and student attendance.

PEARL filed suit, claiming that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Insofar as there were no restrictions on the use of the public funds, which may have covered teacher-prepared religious examinations, the U.S Supreme Court struck the statute down as unconstitutional in Levitt v. Committee for Public Education (1973). However, when the plaintiffs challenged a 1974 revision of the statute in Regan, the Court held that it was acceptable, because the nonpublic schools developed safeguards against teacher-made and religious tests, rendering the reimbursements constitutional.

The Court’s Ruling

In its analysis, the Supreme Court cited the statute in noting that the law’s purpose was to provide “educational opportunity of a quality that would prepare [all] New York citizens for the challenges of American life” (p. 650). In order to accomplish this purpose, the Court recognized that the law required all school officials, public and nonpublic, to participate in a uniform state system of testing and evaluating student performance while also reporting descriptive data about their schools to the state. Further, the Court asserted that the law permitted the state to reimburse nonpublic schools for costs incurred in carrying out the legislative mandate. On further review of an order from a federal trial court upholding the revised statute’s constitutionality, the Supreme Court affirmed.

At the outset of its rationale in Regan, the Supreme Court reflected on several of its decisions in previous church-state cases, primarily Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). In Lemon, the Court developed its three-pronged Lemon test for use in adjudicating disputes involving the First Amendment. Under the Lemon test, a law or policy must have a secular purpose, must have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion (in other words, it must be neutral), and must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.

Turning to the first prong of Lemon, the Supreme Court found that the statute’s intent was to improve educational opportunity for all citizens, a decidedly secular purpose, because it called for standardized state tests to be administered and graded on campus by personnel from nonpublic schools who had no control over the test contents. The Court explained that there were three types of state-prepared tests: student evaluation program tests, comprehensive achievement tests, and Regents Scholarship and College Qualifications Tests. Each of the tests addressed secular academic subjects such as English, mathematics, biology, or social studies. Insofar as none of the tests dealt with religious subject matter, the Court reasoned that there was no substantial risk that the examinations could have been used for religious instruction. The Court was clearly satisfied that the law had a secular purpose and a secular effect, helping it to pass the first prong of the Lemon test.

As to the second prong of Lemon, the Court ruled that the test management and reporting functions were not part of the teaching-learning process and could not be used to advance any religious ideologies. The Court maintained that personnel in the nonpublic schools simply graded the tests and reported the results to the state officials, with the state reimbursing the schools for their services. To the Supreme Court, nonpublic schools were actually “being relieved of the costs of grading [and reporting on] state-required, statefurnished examinations” (p. 658). The Court saw no constitutional conflict with New York’s paying nonpublic schools to perform the grading function rather than paying state employees or independent contractors to perform the task. Further, the Court did not accept the appellants’ argument that all government aid to religious institutions was forbidden, because aid to one aspect of a school frees officials to spend their other resources on religious purposes. Citing one of its earlier judgments, the Court observed,

The Court [is] not blind to the fact that in aiding a religious institution to perform a secular task, the State frees the institution’s resources to be put to sectarian ends. If this were impermissible, however, a church could not be protected by the police and fire departments. . . . The Court never has held that religious activities must be discriminated against in this way. (p. 659)

The Court was of the view that because the law did not advance the cause of religion, its primary effect was secular.

Finally, the Court was of the opinion that the testing and reporting services for which schools were reimbursed were discrete and clearly identifiable insofar as the reimbursement process was simple, straightforward, and routine. The Court thus concluded that the statutory plan did not portend excessive entanglement between government and religion. Moreover, the Supreme Court was not persuaded that the law would have led to political alliances along religious lines, because it reimbursed private schools for “actual costs” only. The Court added that the statute was unlikely to provoke religious competition over future legislative appropriations, thereby impermissibly entangling government with religion in violation of prong three of the Lemon test.

Robert C. Cloud

See also Lemon v. Kurtzman; Meek v. Pittenger; Nonpublic Schools; School Board Policy; School Boards; State Aid and the Establishment Clause; Wolman v. Walter

Legal Citations

  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). 
  • Levitt v. Committee for Public Education, 413 U.S. 472 (1973). 
  • Meek v. Pittenger, 421 U.S. 349 (1975). 
  • Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Regan, 444 U.S. 646 (1980). 
  • Roemer v. Maryland Public Works Board, 426 U.S. 736 (1976). 
  • Sloan v. Lemon, 413 U.S. 825 (1973). 
  • Wolman v. Walter, 433 U.S. 229 (1977).