Meek v. Pittenger

In Meek v. Pittenger (1975), the plaintiffs, three individuals and four organizations, filed suit alleging that two Pennsylvania statutes violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by authorizing the use of state purchased books, materials, and equipment in religious schools. One of the statutes, Act 194, authorized commonwealth officials to provide auxiliary services, including counseling, testing, and psychological services, to all children in Pennsylvania’s nonpublic schools, free of charge. The other law, Act 195, provided that the commonwealth would loan textbooks, instructional materials, and equipment to these same children.

On direct appeal from a federal trial court in Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Act 195, only as it relates to the loan of textbooks, did not violate the Establishment Clause. Affirming the constitutionality of the textbook loan statute, the Court referred to Board of Education v. Allen (1967), in which the justices upheld a law from New York that required public school authorities to lend textbooks to all students in Grades 7 through 12, including children who attended nonpublic, including religiously affiliated, schools. As in Allen, in a manner consistent with the child benefit test, the Court observed that loans of the textbooks were constitutionally acceptable, because they went to the students, not to their nonpublic schools. Further, the Court pointed out that the program withstood constitutional scrutiny insofar as ownership of the textbooks remained with the commonwealth.

Central to the analysis of the application of both Pennsylvania statutes was the three-part test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), which requires governmental action to have a secular legislative purpose and a principal or primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; the action also must not result in excessive entanglement between religion and the government.

In applying this test, the Court concluded that Act 194, and its auxiliary services provision, violated Lemon’s excessive entanglement prong. More specifically, insofar as the services were to be provided by public employees in the setting of nonpublic schools, the Court was concerned about the possible advancement of religion using public resources. The Court thus determined that the continued surveillance necessary to ensure that the teachers did not further the religious mission of religiously affiliated nonpublic schools violated the Establishment Clause.

Turning to Act 194 and the loan of instructional materials, the Court acknowledged that it resulted in “massive aid provided [to] the church-related nonpublic schools” (p. 635). In finding this act unconstitutional, the Court invalidated provisions that allowed the commonwealth to loan periodicals, films, recordings, and laboratory equipment along with equipment for recording and projecting to nonpublic schools. Although the Court conceded that the aid was secular in purpose, the aid had the primary effect of advancing religion, because it was largely provided on site in religiously affiliated nonpublic schools. In addition, the Court thought that the great amount of aid sent to educational environments where religious instruction was so omnipresent meant that it would have inevitably been used to further the religious missions of the schools in violation of the Establishment Clause.

In Mitchell v. Helms (2000), the Supreme Court partially invalidated Meek. Holding that governmental funds utilized for the purchase of instructional and educational materials in sectarian schools did not violate the Establishment Clause, the court admitted that, in that respect, Meek was no longer good law. However, insofar as Helms was a plurality decision, the status of Meek and similar loan programs for nonpublic schools is in some doubt.

Mark Littleton

See also Agostini v. Felton; Board of Education v. Allen; Child Benefit Test; Lemon v. Kurtzman; Mitchell v. Helms; Nonpublic Schools; State Aid and the Establishment Clause; Wolman v. Walter; Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District

Legal Citations

  • Board of Education of Central School District No. 1 v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236 (1968). 
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). 
  • Meek v. Pittenger, 421 U.S. 349 (1975). 
  • Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000). reh’g denied, 530 U.S. 1296 (2000), on remand sub nom. Helms v. Picard, 229 F.3d 467 (5th Cir. 2000).