Agostini v. Felton Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Despite a prior holding to the contrary, New York’s federally funded program that provides supplemental instruction to disadvantaged students on a neutral basis is not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution when such instruction is given on the premises of sectarian schools by government employees pursuant to a program containing safeguards.

Facts of the case

This suit was brought by a New York parochial school board, and some of its student’s parents, as a challenge to a District Court ruling upholding the twelve-year-old decision set out in Aguilar v. Felton (473 US 402). The decision in Aguilar prohibited public school teachers from teaching in parochial schools as a violation of the Establishment Clause. On appeal from the Second Circuit’s affirmance of a District Court’s denial of the parent’s challenge, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Whether Aguilar has been undermined by subsequent Establishment Clause decisions and is no longer good law?


Yes. Judgment of the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded to the District Court with instructions to vacate its 1985 order. The Supreme Court’s cases subsequent to Aguilar have been modified in two significant respects. First, the Supreme Court has abandoned the presumption that the placement of public employees on parochial schools grounds inevitably results in the impermissible effect of state-sponsored indoctrination or constitutes a symbolic union between government and religion. Second, the Supreme Court has departed from the rule that all government aid that directly aids the educational function of religious schools is invalid. Under current law, the program in Aguilar will not be deemed to have the effect of advancing religion through indoctrination. There is no reason to presume that, simply because she enters a parochial school classroom, a full-time public employee such as a Title I teacher will depart from her assigned duties and instructions and embark on religio
us indoctrination. Nor under current law can it be concluded that a program placing full-time public employees on parochial campuses to provide Title I instruction would result in impermissible finance religious indoctrination. Aguilar’s conclusion that the program at issue resulted in excessive entanglement between church and state is not consistent with current law because not all entanglements have the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion. Therefore, New York’s Title I program does not run afoul of any of the three primary criteria the Supreme Court now uses to evaluate whether government aid has the effect of advancing religion: (i) it does not result in religions indoctrination: (ii) does not define its recipients by reference to religion or (iii) nor does it not create an excessive entanglement. Therefore, Aguilar has been undermined by subsequent Establishment Clause decisions and is no longer good law.


The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the court of appeals’ decision and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to vacate its prior order that enjoined operation of the City’s program. In reversing its prior decision, the Court expressly ruled that the program was not invalid under the establishment of religion clause, as the program did not result in governmental religious indoctrination, define aid recipients by reference to religion so as to give the recipients any incentive to modify their religious beliefs or practices in order to obtain services, or create an excessive entanglement that advanced or inhibited religion.

  • Case Brief: 1997
  • Petitioner: Agostini
  • Respondent: Felton
  • Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Citation: 521 US 203 (1997)
Argued: Apr 15, 1997
Decided: Jun 23, 1997