Mitchell v. Helms,
530 U.S. 793 (2000)

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No. 98-1648. Argued December 1, 1999-Decided June 28, 2000

Chapter 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981 channels federal funds via state educational agencies (SEA's) to local educational agencies (LEA's), which in turn lend educational materials and equipment, such as library and media materials and computer software and hardware, to public and private elementary and secondary schools to implement "secular, neutral, and nonideological" programs. The enrollment of each participating school determines the amount of Chapter 2 aid that it receives. In an average year, about 30% of Chapter 2 funds spent in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, are allocated for private schools, most of which are Catholic or otherwise religiously affiliated. Respondents filed suit alleging, among other things, that Chapter 2, as applied in the parish, violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Agreeing, the Chief Judge of the District Court held, under Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U. S. 602, 612-613, that Chapter 2 had the primary effect of advancing religion because the materials and equipment loaned to the Catholic schools were direct aid and the schools were pervasively sectarian. He relied primarily on Meek v. Pittenger, 421 U. S. 349, and Wolman v. Walter, 433 U. S. 229, in which programs providing many of the same sorts of materials and equipment as does Chapter 2 were struck down, even though programs providing for the loan of public school textbooks to religious schools were upheld. After the judge issued an order permanently excluding pervasively sectarian schools in the parish from receiving any Chapter 2 materials or equipment, he retired. Another judge then reversed that order, upholding Chapter 2 under, inter alia, Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School Dist., 509 U. S. 1, in which a public school district was allowed to provide a sign-language interpreter to a deaf student at a Catholic high school as part of a federal program for the disabled. While respondents' appeal was pending, this Court decided Agostini v. Felton, 521 U. S. 203, approving a program under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that provided public employees to teach remedial classes at religious and other private schools. Concluding that Agostini had neither directly overruled Meek and Wolman nor rejected their distinction between textbooks and other in-kind aid, the Fifth Circuit relied on those two cases to invalidate Chapter 2.



Held: The judgment is reversed. 151 F.3d 347, reversed.

JUSTICE THOMAS, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE SCALIA, and JUSTICE KENNEDY, concluded that Chapter 2, as applied in Jefferson Parish, is not a law respecting an establishment of religion simply because many of the private schools receiving Chapter 2 aid in the parish are religiously affiliated. Pp. 807-836.

(a) In modifying the Lemon test-which asked whether a statute (1) has a secular purpose, (2) has a primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, or (3) creates an excessive entanglement between government and religion, see 403 U. S., at 612-613-Agostini examined only the first and second of those factors, see 521 U. S., at 222-223, recasting the entanglement inquiry as simply one criterion relevant to determining a statute's effect, id., at 232-233. The Court also acknowledged that its cases had pared somewhat the factors that could justify a finding of excessive entanglement. Id., at 233-234. It then set out three primary criteria for determining a statute's effect: Government aid has the effect of advancing religion if it (1) results in governmental indoctrination, (2) defines its recipients by reference to religion, or (3) creates an excessive entanglement. Ibid. In this case, the inquiry under Agostini's purpose and effect test is a narrow one. Because the District Court's holding that Chapter 2 has a secular purpose is not challenged, only Chapter 2's effect need be considered. Further, in determining that effect, only the first two Agostini criteria need be considered, because the District Court's holding that Chapter 2 does not create an excessive entanglement is not challenged. Pp. 807-808.

(b) Whether governmental aid to religious schools results in religious indoctrination ultimately depends on whether any indoctrination that occurs could reasonably be attributed to governmental action. See, e. g., Agostini, 521 U. S., at 226. Moreover, the answer to the indoctrination question will resolve the question whether an educational aid program "subsidizes" religion. See id., at 230-231. In distinguishing between indoctrination that is attributable to the State and indoctrination that is not, the Court has consistently turned to the neutrality principle, upholding aid that is offered to a broad range of groups or persons without regard to their religion. As a way of assuring neutrality, the Court has repeatedly considered whether any governmental aid to a religious institution results from the genuinely independent and private choices of individual parents, e. g., id., at 226. Agostini's second primary criterion-whether an aid program defines its recipients by reference to religion, id., at 234-is closely related to the first. It looks to the same facts as the neutrality inquiry, see id., at 225-226, but uses

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Whether government aid has the effect of advancing religion depends on whether the law results in governmental indoctrination, whether the law uses religion to define its recipients, and whether it results in excessive government entanglement in religion.


Federal funds were provided to elementary and secondary school students under Chapter 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981. The law limited aid to private schools to non-religious aid in the form of a loan for equipment or materials. This was the usual purpose for which private schools in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana used their loans, although most of the private schools were religiously affiliated. As a result, an action was brought to determine whether the application of Chapter 2 in Jefferson Parish violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.



  • Clarence Thomas (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

In determining whether funding by the government has the effect of advancing religion, a court should use the factors outlined in Agostini v. Felton (1997). (These are the factors stated in the primary holding above.) The law has a secular purpose, and it does not implicate any of the three factors. This means that it does not affect the establishment of religion because government action could not be considered to be the source of any religious indoctrination that occurs in the schools. The federal funding is granted to a broad range of recipients without regard to their religion. It does not offer a financial incentive to undertake religious indoctrination.


  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • Stephen G. Breyer

The standard created by the plurality is overly broad because it allows any type of federal funding for religious schools that is secular in content and offered on a neutral basis. The majority also should have preserved the distinction between direct and indirect funding.


  • David H. Souter (Author)
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Establishment Clause is violated when government funds may be diverted to serve religious purposes.

Case Commentary

The Establishment Clause generally is not applied very rigidly to a school when the application would harm the interests of children in receiving their education.

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