Grand Rapids School District v. Ball

At issue in Grand Rapids School District v. Ball (1985) was the constitutionality of two educational programs of the Grand Rapids, Michigan, School District that served the students of nonpublic schools, most of them religiously affiliated. The U.S. Supreme Court in Ball found that the programs were an impermissible mixture of state and religion, but in subsequent cases, it drew back from this position and revised the criteria for judging Establishment Clause cases.

Facts of the Case

The first program, the Shared Time program, offered classes during the school day that supplemented the core curriculum at nonpublic schools and included remedial and enrichment subjects. The Shared Time teachers were full-time employees of the public schools. The public school board provided supplies, instructional materials, and equipment. The second program, the Community Education program, was offered after school throughout the Grand Rapids community, on a voluntary basis for children and adults. Community Education teachers were part-time employees who were often instructors at the same nonpublic school. Both programs were conducted in leased classrooms of the nonpublic schools. Almost all of the nonpublic schools were religiously affiliated.

Taxpayers challenged the constitutionality of the programs under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After a federal trial court in Michigan agreed that both programs violated the First Amendment, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal.

The Court’s Ruling

On further review, the Supreme Court affirmed that the programs were unconstitutional. In its analysis, the Court applied its tripartite test of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), which looks at the purpose, effect, and entanglement aspects of interactions between the state and religious institutions. While the Court found that the programs had secular purposes, it thought that their primary effect impermissibly advanced religion. The Court explained that the programs advanced religion in three ways. First, the Court noted that the public school employees who taught at the private schools might intentionally or inadvertently have become involved in inculcating religious beliefs in classes. Second, the Court was of the opinion that the programs would have created a symbolic link between church and state, thereby giving students an impression of support of a particular religion. Third, the Court maintained that the programs directly promoted religion by subsidizing religious institutions by payment of public funds to teachers.

The outcome in Ball was consistent with the Supreme Court’s judgment in Meek v. Pittenger (1975), wherein it upheld the loans of textbooks but struck down the loans of instructional materials, equipment, and services. The Court observed that the use of materials and equipment in sectarian institutions assisted the educational functions of the schools by diverting aid to religious purposes and causing the government to indirectly aid religious institutions. Relying on Meek, the Ball Court determined that the potential for teachers paid by the state, unless monitored, posed the risk of state-sponsored indoctrination.

Ball was handed down on the same day as Aguilar v. Felton (1985), wherein the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the use of Title I funds to provide instructional services for religiously affiliated nonpublic schools in New York City and their schools. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provides instructional services to meet the needs of educationally deprived children from lowincome families. In Aguilar, the Court indicated that the use of Title I funds was unconstitutional based on the excessive-entanglement prong of the Lemon test. Ball and Aguilar are examples of the Court’s earlier view of state aid to religiously affiliated nonpublic schools.

The Supreme Court effectively overruled both Aguilar and Ball in Agostini v. Felton (1997), wherein it dissolved the injunction that enforced its order in Aguilar. In Agostini, the Court reheard the issues raised in Aguilar and came to a different result. While acknowledging that the principles for evaluating an Establishment Clause claim had not changed since Aguilar, the Court affirmed that the question to ask was whether the government acted with a secular purpose and whether the government’s aid had the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. The Court rejected the presumptions of Ball and Meek that placement of public school teachers in religiously affiliated nonpublic schools inevitably resulted in state-sponsored indoctrination.

Further, the Agostini Court reasoned that it would no longer be presumed, as in Ball, that government aid indirectly subsidizes the educational functions of religious schools. Instead, the Court expressed its intention of looking at the neutrality of the criteria for identifying beneficiaries in considering subsidies and incentives to engage in religious indoctrination. The Court added that Lemon’s excessive-entanglement prong was to be treated as one aspect under its effects test.

When Agostini came up for review, the Court had already begun to change its view of the Establishment Clause in other cases. For those who believe in strict separation of church and state, the Court’s overturning of Ball and Aguilar can be viewed as eroding the principles underlying this perspective. Conversely, for proponents of the child benefit test, the Court’s shift advances opportunities for children.

Deborah Curry

See also Agostini v. Felton; Child Benefit Test; Lemon v. Kurtzman; Meek v. Pittenger; State Aid and the Establishment Clause

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