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Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township


Citation: 330 U.S. 1 (1947)

Introduction to the Case

The Supreme Court ruled that a state law enabling the state to reimburse parents for money expended by them for the transportation of their children, on buses operated by the public transportation system, to schools, even though some of the schools involved were church schools.

Summary of the Facts

A state statute enabled its local school districts to make rules and contracts for the transportation of students to and from schools. A township board of education, acting pursuant to this statute, authorized reimbursement to parents of money expended by them for the transportation of their children on regular buses operated by the public transportation system. Part of this money was for the payment of transportation of some children in the community to schools operated by a particular religious denomination. These church schools gave their students, in addition to secular education, regular religious instruction conforming to the religious tenets and modes of worship of this religious faith. The superintendent of these schools is a priest in the religion.

An individual, in his capacity as a taxpayer in one of these school districts, filed a lawsuit challenging the right of the board to reimburse parents of parochial school students. He contended that the statute, and a resolution passed pursuant to it, violated the state and federal constitutions. One of these assertions was that the statute and resolution forced inhabitants of the state to pay taxes to help support and maintain schools which are dedicated to, and which regularly teach, this religious faith. This was alleged to be a use of state power to support church schools contrary to the prohibitions of the First Amendment, which the Fourteenth Amendment made applicable to the states.

Summary of the Law

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This aspect of constitutional law is, under the Fourteenth Amendment, binding on the states.

Summary of the Opinion

The Court opened its analysis of the “law respecting an establishment of religion” with a review of the background and environment of the period in which that constitutional language was fashioned and adopted. It wrote that the colonists “reached the conviction that individual religious liberty could be achieved best under a government which was stripped of all power to tax, to support, or otherwise to assist any or all religions, or to interfere with the beliefs of any religious individual or group.”

The Court wrote that the “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment “means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.”

As to the statute at issue in this case, the Court stated that the state “cannot consistently with the ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment contribute tax-raised funds to the support of an institution which teaches the tenets and faith of any church.” On the other hand, “other language of the amendment commands that [the state] cannot hamper its citizens in the free exercise of their own religion.” The Court continued: “While we do not mean to intimate that a state could not provide transportation only to children attending public schools, we must be careful, in protecting the citizens of [the state] against state-established churches, to be sure that we do not inadvertently prohibit [the state] from extending its general State law benefits to all its citizens without regard to their religious belief.”

“Measured by these standards,” the Court wrote, “we cannot say that the First Amendment prohibits [the state] from spending tax-raised funds to pay the bus fares of parochial school pupils as a part of a general program under which it pays the fares of pupils attending public and other schools.” The Court observed that it is appropriate for state-paid policemen to protect children going to and from schools, including church schools, and church schools may receive state services such as fire protection, connections for sewage disposal, and public highways and sidewalks.

The Court said: “Of course, cutting off church schools from these services, so separate and so indisputably marked off from the religious function, would make it far more difficult for the schools to operate. But such is obviously not the purpose of the First Amendment. That Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions, than it is to favor them.”

In this case, the state does not contribute any money to the schools. It does not support them. Its legislation, as applied, “does no more than provide a general program to help parents get their children, regardless of their religion, safely and expeditiously to and from accredited schools.”

The Court concluded: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. [The state] has not breached it here.”

Background Information

Additional information underlying this case is available in § 8.1 of The Law of Tax-Exempt Organizations, Eighth Edition (2003), published by John Wiley & Sons (see link).

Information concerning this area of the law is available on an ongoing basis in Bruce R. Hopkins’ Nonprofit Counsel, a monthly newsletter published by Wiley.