Mitchell v. Helms: The Court’s Ruling

Mitchell v. Helms

Mitchell v. Helms: Facts of the Case

In its analysis, the four-justice plurality in Mitchell focused on the effects prong of the Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) test, the long-time standard in disputes over the parameters of permissible state aid to religiously affiliated schools and their students, as modified by Agostini v. Felton (1997). The justices specifically considered whether the government assistance was neutral toward religion.

As the plurality explained, a court must answer two fundamental questions in evaluating whether governmental assistance is permissible under the Establishment Clause. The first question that the justices posed was whether the aid was offered to a broad range of groups or persons without regard to religion and, if so, whether it reached private institutions only as a result of genuine, independent private choices, so that it did not result in governmental indoctrination. The second question that the plurality identified was whether the criteria for allocating the aid were neutral and secular, so that they did not define recipients by reference to religion and thereby create financial incentives to undertake religious indoctrination.

The plurality in Mitchell found that Chapter 2 was constitutionally permissible for two reasons. First, the justices agreed that the program was constitutional, because all public and nonpublic schools were eligible to participate in it, while the amount of aid provided to individual schools was determined by the number of students enrolled in them. The plurality considered this to be factor that was controlled by the independent choices of parents and students, not state actors, such that any resulting religious indoctrination could not have been attributed to the government. Second, the plurality decided that the program was acceptable because it used neutral, secular eligibility criteria that neither favored nor disfavored religion. The plurality observed that this did not create a financial incentive to undertake religious indoctrination, because the aid was offered to a broad array of both public and private schools without regard to their religious affiliations.

Mitchell is significant for four reasons. First, it broadened the scope of permissible aid to religiously affiliated nonpublic schools by allowing governmental entities to purchase and loan instructional materials and equipment to those schools. Second, the plurality expressly reversed those parts of Meek v. Pittenger (1975) and Wolman v. Walter (1977) that were contrary to its opinion on the types of instructional materials and equipment that could be loaned to religiously affiliated nonpublic schools. However, because the Mitchell decision was made by a plurality, its impact in this regard is limited.

Third, Mitchell moved the Supreme Court closer to a formal neutrality test in light of the plurality’s reliance on neutrality. This trend continued in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), wherein the Court applied the formal neutrality test to uphold a voucher program for poor students in Cleveland, Ohio. Finally, Mitchell rejected some factors that were significant in deciding earlier Establishment Clause cases. In particular, the justices noted that nonpublic schools could receive aid even if they were pervasively sectarian, thereby rejecting the distinction between direct and indirect aid under which direct aid to religious schools was prohibited but indirect aid was permitted.