This case is about an educational program which provides monetary benefits to families who have school-aged children. The program provides that the monetary benefits received should be used for “bona fide educational expenses”. The term “bona fide educational expenses” has been defined as “expenses associated with training in skills necessary for success in adult life, including but not limited to academic education, skills training related to potential future adult employment in the State of Wisconsin, and related adult life skills.” However, the program provides a clause that “No Wisconsin Learns funds shall be expended for activities that do not fall within the definition of bona fide educational expenses described herein.”. The Smythe family has been found to have violated this clause, hence the monetary benefits which they used to receive ceased. The Smythes alleged that the action of the Board violated the First Amendment, particularly on the provisions regarding freedom of religion and right to privacy. Hence, the issue now is, whether or not there is a violation of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment prohibits the interference of the State towards an individual’s freedom of religion. Freedom of religion connotes two things: the right to believe and the right to exercise one’s belief.
The State, under the First Amendment, is not allowed to promote a religion, nor support any religion or religious activities. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’ [Reynolds v. United States, supra, 98 U.S. at page 164. as cited in the case of Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing TP., 330 U.S. 1 (1947)].
Thus, the constitutional inhibition of legislation on the subject of religion has a double aspect. On the one hand, it forestalls compulsion by law of the acceptance of any creed or the practice of any form of worship. Freedom of conscience and freedom to adhere to such religious organization or form of worship as the individual may choose cannot be restricted by law. On the other hand, it safeguards the free exercise of the chosen form of religion. (Wallace vs. Jaffree, Appeal from the United Stated Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit No. 83-812, Argued: December 4, 1984—Decided: June 4, 1985)
However, in this case, it cannot be said that the action of the board constitutes a violation of the First Amendment.
There is no showing that the Wisconsin Learns program is established to support a religion nor establish a religion.
Jurisprudence provides three tests in order to determine whether or not the clause violates the First Amendment. To be valid, first, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion, finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” [Walz v. Tax Commission, 397 U.S. 664, 674 (1970) as cited in the case of Locke, Governor of Washington, et.al. vs. Davey (February 25, 2004)]
In applying these three tests to the case, it can be said that Wisconsin Learns program is not established for a religious purpose, neither does the act of the board betrays this fact. The program is established to provide monetary support to families for the educational development of their children. On the other hand, the act of the board is not in pursuant of a religious purpose, rather, the act is motivated for the purpose of supervising and monitoring the proper allocation of the funds.
What the board has acted in disfavor is not the religious affiliation of the family but the way the school is teaching its students. The educational standard set by that school is below the required minimum standard set by the program, hence, it is just proper for the board to take actions on the matter.
Furthermore, the Wisconsin Learns program does not provide that the students should not enroll in any religious school, for what it only abhors is the use of the funds not necessary for the development of the child.
The right to educate a child in a school of the parents’ choice – whether public or private or parochial is not mentioned under the First Amendment. Yet the First Amendment has been construed to include this right. [Griswold vs. Connecticut, 381 US. 479 (1965)]
Even assuming arguendo that the act of the board is a restriction to the free exercise of religion, yet, it is also a well-known fact that the exercise of our fundamental rights is not absolute for these can be subjected to restrictions, pursuant to the exercise of the State of its police power.
Hence, our fundamental rights may be restricted, and such restrictions may be valid for as long as the State remains neutral in dealing with religious practices and beliefs. [Locke, Governor of Washington, et.al. vs. Davey (February 25, 2004)]
The First 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. [Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing TP., 330 U.S. 1 (1947)]
An individual’s right to liberty is not all encompassing so as to reject the State of its authority to regulate such rights. The State is not stripped of its power to provide guidelines in order to promote the general welfare of the people.
Therefore, the contention of Smythe that the action of the board violates the First Amendment is not correct.
Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing TP., 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
Wallace vs. Jaffree, Appeal from the United Stated Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit No. 83-812, Argued: December 4, 1984—Decided: June 4, 1985
Locke, Governor of Washington, et.al. vs. Davey , February 25, 2004
Griswold vs. Connecticut, 381 US. 479 (1965)