Agostini v. Felton

LOCATION:New York Board of Education Headquarters

DOCKET NO.: 96-552
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 521 US 203 (1997)
ARGUED: Apr 15, 1997
DECIDED: Jun 23, 1997

Paul A. Crotty – Argued the cause for the petitioners
Stanley Geller – Argued the cause for the private respondents
Walter E. Dellinger, III – Argued the cause for the federal respondent, supporting the petitioners

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.


Is the Establishment Clause violated when public school teachers instruct in parochial schools?

Media for Agostini v. Felton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 15, 1997 in Agostini v. Felton

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 23, 1997 in Agostini v. Felton

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 96-552, Agostini against Felton and a related case will be announced by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O’Connor:

These are cases come here on writs of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

For 30 years now, New York City has been providing remedial instruction on guidance counseling to economically disadvantaged school children.

These services had been provided with federal funds pursuant to a congressionally enacted program commonly called Title I.

In order to receive Title I funds, school district, like the one in New York City, are required to provide Title I services to as many eligible children in their districts as they can, whether those children attend public or private schools.

Although only about 10% of New York City school children attend private schools.

Almost all of those private schools are affiliated with a religion.

Thus, the Board of Education of the City of New York has been required to provide Title I services to some children attending religious schools.

For some years, the Board provided Title I services to children attending religious schools from the premises of those schools.

These services were provided by publicly employed teachers and guidance counselors who often travel from school to school.

They were assigned to schools without regard to their religious preferences.

These employees were also given instructions not to inculcate religion in the course of their duties and not to cooperate with religious school officials any more than necessary to provide the services.

The services themselves could only supplement the level of remedial instruction and guidance counseling services already provided by the private schools.

The Title I services had to be purely secular in content.

In 1978, six federal taxpayers sued the New York City Board on the grounds that New York’s program to provide Title I services to religious school students at their school violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Seven years later, in a case called Aguilar versus Felton, this Court agreed with the taxpayers.

This Court, in Aguilar, reasoned that public employees who work in religious schools would be either unable or unwilling to resist the pressures of the pervasively sectarian atmosphere present in those schools, and would begin to read religious messages into their instruction or counseling.

The Aguilar majority found that the supervision necessary to prevent inculcation of religion in the schools created an excessive entanglement between church and state and accordingly violated the Establishment Clause.

On remand, from that decision, the District Court entered an injunction permanently enjoining the New York City Board of Education from offering Title I services on the premises of religious schools.

Bound by this injunction, the Board explored other methods of serving the 10% of students who attend that religious schools.

The most common alternative was to provide the Title I services in mobile classroom buses parked near the religious schools; sometimes at the very curbside of those schools.

As expected, the cost of renting these buses or leasing them was high.

The Board spent over $100 million to provide these off campus services, since our decision in Aguilar was handed down.

Last year, the Board of Education moved in the Federal District Court for release from the injunction under Rule 60(b)(5) of the Federal Rules.

Rule 60 (b)(5) gives the court the power to excuse a party from judgment in a case when it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have perspective application.

The School Board argued that the circumstances had changed since we decided Aguilar, so that it was no longer equitable to enforce the injunction.

First, they claimed that the exorbitant costs of complying with the injunction were changed factual circumstance.

Second, the Board claimed that Aguilar was no longer a good law because five of the justices in a case called Kiryas Joel had recently called for Aguilar to be reconsidered.

Third, the Board argued that Aguilar itself had been undermined by our more recent decisions, specifically Witters versus Washington Department of Services for the Blind and Zobrest versus Catalina Foothills School District.

The District Court denied the Board’s Rule 60(b)(5) motion largely on the ground that it was bound by Aguilar as precedent.

Sandra Day O’Connor:

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk of the Court today, we reverse the judgment of the District Court, and order that relief be granted under Rule 60(b)(5).

Although we find that the high cost of complying with the injunction do not constitute a change in the factual circumstances, that change was anticipated, and that the statements of five justices in Kiryas Joel do not constitute a change in the law, we agree with the Board that our decisions are subsequent decisions and Witters and Zobrest have eroded the rationale upon which the Aguilar relied.

In Witters we upheld the program that allowed a blind student to use public vocational training funds to attend the religious school, and in Zobrest we held that a public school district could pay for a signlanguage interpreter to assist a student who attended a religious high school.

These recent cases have abandoned the presumption that public employees will inculcate religion simply because they teach in a classroom located on the premises of a colloquial school.

Without this presumption, the system of supervising Title I teachers that New York City already had in place is sufficient to ensure that Title I services remain secular and that the system is not an excessive entanglement between church and state.

Accordingly, we find Aguilar as no longer good law.

There has been a significant change in the law wanting Rule 60(b) relief.

We furthermore conclude that the Board’s use of Rule 60(b)(5) is proper because it arises in the narrow context of the civil case where a party labors under a continuing injunction.

Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens and Ginsburg join in full and in which Justice Breyer joins in part; Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer join.