Mueller v. Allen eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

Supreme Court decision

By: William H. Rehnquist and Thurgood Marshall

Date: June 29, 1983

Source: Rehnquist, William H. and Thurgood Marshall. Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388. Available online at http://laws.findlaw.com/us/463/388.html; website home page: http://laws.findlaw.com (accessed April 17, 2003).

About the Authors: William Rehnquist (1924–) attended Stanford for his law degrees. In 1971, he was named to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1986, he was appointed chief justice. He is generally regarded as a conservative. Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993) served as counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1967, he became the first African American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served until 1991.

Introduction

Most American colonies had established churches. Religious freedom, though, was a motivating factor for many colonists, who came to believe that a separation of church and state was needed. For this reason, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.…" The amendment's meaning was not generally tested in the nineteenth century because the Bill of Rights, which included the First Amendment, was held to apply only to the actions of the federal government.

In the twentieth century, though, things began to change. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Supreme Court began to hold that the First Amendment was part of our "liberty," which was applied against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibiting states from denying liberty and equal protection under the law. Religion also became a public part of American policy, as America was locked in a battle with the "godless communism" of the Soviet Union. The Supreme Court began to interpret the freedom of religion segment of the First Amendment in the 1960s. In Engel (1962), the Court struck down a requirement that schools begin their day with a prayer led by the teachers and repeated voluntarily by the students. The Court held that such a prayer was an endorsement of religion by the schools. In 1971, the Court developed a test (the Lemon test) for determining if aid to religious schools was constitutional. For the aid to be constitutional, it had to have a "secular purpose," had to neither help nor hurt religion, and had to not foster "an excessive entanglement of religion" with the state. In that case, the Court struck down a program of purchasing secular education from religious schools for students who normally attended those schools. The question of allowing state income tax deductions for certain educational expenses, regardless of whether they were at a religious or secular school, was the issue in Mueller v. Allen.

Significance

The Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 vote, upheld the Minnesota statute that allowed taxpayers to deduct expenses incurred at parochial schools. The majority held that the purpose of this statute was to encourage education, that the program did not directly help or hinder religion, and that even though state officials had to determine if certain expenses were for educational rather than religious purposes, this did not cause an "excessive entanglement." Those who dissented from the majority argued that most of the benefits go to religious schools, and so this tax deduction directly supports religion in a way prohibited by the First Amendment.

Later cases dealing with religion in education have consistently prohibited prayer in public schools and have struck down statutes requiring equal teaching of evolution and "creation science." Federal grants to charitable groups, both religious and secular, however, have been upheld. Aid to schools in educational areas have met mixed results—for instance, providing maps, periodicals, and photographs have been denied, but giving textbooks and reimbursing private schools for the costs of state tests have been allowed.

The issue of state involvement in religion, directly and indirectly, remains in the news. Ever since Engel, some conservatives have pushed for a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in public schools. States continue to try to force the posting of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public schools, but these efforts have consistently been struck down at the federal government level. President George W. Bush (served 2001–) advocated providing federal aid to churches and religious groups to help with their charitable activities.

Primary Source: Mueller v. Allen [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: Justice Rehnquist, who wrote the majority opinion, details the Minnesota plan and outlines the Lemon test. He then argues that the tax deduction has the secular goal of advancing education, does not aid religion because it aids all schools, and does not excessively entangle the state in religion. Writing in dissent, Marshall argues that since the vast majority of the people helped by the statute attend religious schools, it violates the First Amendment.

Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the Court.…

Minnesota, …permits state taxpayers to claim a deduction from gross income for certain expenses incurred in educating their children. The deduction is limited to actual expenses incurred for the "tuition, textbooks and transportation" of dependents attending elementary or secondary schools.…

Today's case is no exception to our oft-repeated statement that the Establishment Clause presents especially difficult questions of interpretation and application. It is easy enough to quote the few words constituting that Clause—"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." It is not at all easy, however, to apply this Court's various decisions construing the Clause to governmental programs of financial assistance to sectarian schools and the parents of children attending those schools.…

One fixed principle in this field is our consistent rejection of the argument that "any program which in some manner aids an institution with a religious affiliation" violates the Establishment Clause.…

Notwithstanding the repeated approval given programs. . . , our decisions also have struck down arrangements resembling, in many respects, these forms of assistance.… In this case we are asked to decide whether Minnesota's tax deduction bears greater resemblance to those types of assistance to parochial schools we have approved, or to those we have struck down. Petitioners place particular reliance on our decision in Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, supra, where we held invalid a New York statute providing public funds for the maintenance and repair of the physical facilities of private schools and granting thinly disguised "tax benefits," actually amounting to tuition grants, to the parents of children attending private schools.…

The general nature of our inquiry in this area has been guided, since the decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, supra, by the "three-part" test laid down in that case:

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."

…While this principle is well settled, our cases have also emphasized that it provides "no more than [a] helpful signpos[t]" in dealing with Establishment Clause challenges.…

Little time need be spent on the question of whether the Minnesota tax deduction has a secular purpose.…

A State's decision to defray the cost of educational expenses incurred by parents—regardless of the type of schools their children attend—evidences a purpose that is both secular and understandable.…

All these justifications are readily available to support 290.09, …and each is sufficient to satisfy the secular purpose inquiry of Lemon.

We turn therefore to the more difficult but related question whether the Minnesota statute has "the primary effect of advancing the sectarian aims of the nonpublic schools." …In concluding that it does not, we find several features of the Minnesota tax deduction particularly significant.…

Other characteristics of 290.09, …argue equally strongly for the provision's constitutionality. Most importantly, the deduction is available for educational expenses incurred by all parents, including those whose children attend public schools and those whose children attend nonsectarian private schools or sectarian private schools.…

Unlike the assistance at issue in Nyquist, 290.09, …permits all parents—whether their children attend public school or private—to deduct their children's educational expenses.… a program, like 290.09, …that neutrally provides state assistance to a broad spectrum of citizens is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause.…

The Establishment Clause of course extends beyond prohibition of a state church or payment of state funds to one or more churches. We do not think, however, that its prohibition extends to the type of tax deduction established by Minnesota. The historic purposes of the Clause simply do not encompass the sort of attenuated financial benefit, ultimately controlled by the private choices of individual parents, that eventually flows to parochial schools from the neutrally available tax benefit at issue in this case.

Petitioners argue that, notwithstanding the facial neutrality of 290.09, …in application the statute primarily benefits religious institutions. Petitioners rely, as they did below, on a statistical analysis of the type of persons claiming the tax deduction.…

We need not consider these contentions in detail. We would be loath to adopt a rule grounding the constitutionality of a facially neutral law on annual reports reciting the extent to which various classes of private citizens claimed benefits under the law. Such an approach would scarcely provide the certainty that this field stands in need of, nor can we perceive principled standards by which such statistical evidence might be evaluated. Moreover, the fact that private persons fail in a particular year to claim the tax relief to which they are entitled—under a facially neutral statute—should be of little importance in determining the constitutionality of the statute permitting such relief.

Finally, private educational institutions, and parents paying for their children to attend these schools, make special contributions to the areas in which they operate.… If parents of children in private schools choose to take especial advantage of the relief provided by 290.09, …it is no doubt due to the fact that they bear a particularly great financial burden in educating their children. More fundamentally, whatever unequal effect may be attributed to the statutory classification can fairly be regarded as a rough return for the benefits, discussed above, provided to the State and all taxpayers by parents sending their children to parochial schools. In the light of all this, we believe it wiser to decline to engage in the type of empirical inquiry into those persons benefited by state law which petitioners urge.

Thus, we hold that the Minnesota tax deduction for educational expenses satisfies the primary effect inquiry of our Establishment Clause cases.

Turning to the third part of the Lemon inquiry, we have no difficulty in concluding that the Minnesota statute does not "excessively entangle" the State in religion. The only plausible source of the "comprehensive, discriminating, and continuing state surveillance," …necessary to run afoul of this standard would lie in the fact that state officials must determine whether particular textbooks qualify for a deduction.… Making decisions such as this does not differ substantially from making the types of decisions approved in earlier opinions of this Court.…

Justice Marshall, with whom Justice Brennan,
Justice Blackmun, and Justice Stevens join,
dissenting.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits a State from subsidizing religious education, whether it does so directly or indirectly. In my view, this principle of neutrality forbids not only the tax benefits struck down in Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, …but any tax benefit, including the tax deduction at issue here, which subsidizes tuition payments to sectarian schools. I also believe that the Establishment Clause prohibits the tax deductions that Minnesota authorizes for the cost of books and other instructional materials used for sectarian purposes.…

Contrary to the majority's suggestion, …the bulk of the tax benefits afforded by the Minnesota scheme are enjoyed by parents of parochial school children not because parents of public school children fail to claim deductions to which they are entitled, but because the latter are simply unable to claim the largest tax deduction that Minnesota authorizes. Fewer than 100 of more than 900,000 school-age children in Minnesota attend public schools that charge a general tuition. Of the total number of taxpayers who are eligible for the tuition deduction, approximately 96% send their children to religious schools.…

That this deduction has a primary effect of promoting religion can easily be determined without any resort to the type of "statistical evidence" that the majority fears would lead to constitutional uncertainty.… The only factual inquiry necessary is the same as that employed in Nyquist.… whether the deduction permitted for tuition expenses primarily benefits those who send their children to religious schools.…

Because Minnesota, like every other State, is committed to providing free public education, tax assistance for tuition payments inevitably redounds to the benefit of nonpublic, sectarian schools and parents who send their children to those schools.

The majority also asserts that the Minnesota statute is distinguishable from the statute struck down in Nyquist in another respect: the tax benefit available under Minnesota law is a "genuine tax deduction," whereas the New York law provided a benefit which, while nominally a deduction, also had features of a "tax credit." …Under the Minnesota law, the amount of the tax benefit varies directly with the amount of the expenditure. Under the New York law, the amount of deduction was not dependent upon the amount actually paid for tuition but was a predetermined amount which depended on the tax bracket of each taxpayer. The deduction was designed to yield roughly the same amount of tax "forgiveness" for each taxpayer.

This is a distinction without a difference. Our prior decisions have rejected the relevance of the majority's formalistic distinction between tax deductions and the tax benefit at issue in Nyquist.… Like the tax benefit held impermissible in Nyquist, the tax deduction at issue here concededly was designed to "encourag[e] desirable expenditures for educational purposes.". . .

As previously noted, …the Minnesota tuition tax deduction is not available to all parents, but only to parents whose children attend schools that charge tuition, which are comprised almost entirely of sectarian schools. More importantly, the assistance that flows to parochial schools as a result of the tax benefit is not restricted, and cannot be restricted, to the secular functions of those schools.

In my view, Minnesota's tax deduction for the cost of textbooks and other instructional materials is also constitutionally infirm. The majority is simply mistaken in concluding that a tax deduction, unlike a tax credit or a direct grant to parents, promotes religious education in a manner that is only "attenuated." …A tax deduction has a primary effect that advances religion if it is provided to offset expenditures which are not restricted to the secular activities of parochial schools.

The instructional materials which are subsidized by the Minnesota tax deduction plainly may be used to inculcate religious values and belief.…

There is no reason to treat Minnesota's tax deduction for textbooks any differently. Secular textbooks, like other secular instructional materials, contribute to the religious mission of the parochial schools that use those books.…

In any event, the Court's assumption in Allen that the textbooks at issue there might be used only for secular education was based on the fact that those very books had been chosen by the State for use in the public schools. In contrast, the Minnesota statute does not limit the tax deduction to those books which the State has approved for use in public schools. Rather, it permits a deduction for books that are chosen by the parochial schools themselves. Indeed, under the Minnesota statutory scheme, textbooks chosen by parochial schools but not used by public schools are likely to be precisely the ones purchased by parents for their children's use.…

There can be little doubt that the State of Minnesota intended to provide, and has provided, "[s]ubstantial aid to the educational function of [church-related] schools," and that the tax deduction for tuition and other educational expenses "necessarily results in aid to the sectarian school enterprise as a whole." …For the first time, the Court has upheld financial support for religious schools without any reason at all to assume that the support will be restricted to the secular functions of those schools and will not be used to support religious instruction. This result is flatly at odds with the fundamental principle that a State may provide no financial support whatsoever to promote religion. I dissent.

Further Resources

BOOKS

Davis, Sue Justice. Rehnquist and the Constitution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Eastland, Terry. Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court: The Cases that Define the Debate over Church and State. Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1993.

Noonan, John Thomas, and Edward McGlynn Gaffney. Religious Freedom: History, Cases, and Other Materials on the Interaction of Religion and Government. New York: Foundation Press, 2001.

Smolla, Rodney A. The First Amendment: Freedom of Expression, Regulation of Mass Media, Freedom of Religion. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1999.

Sullivan, Kathleen M., and Gerald Gunther, First Amendment Law. New York: Foundation Press, 1999.

PERIODICALS

Allsberry, Gregory K. "Tax Deductions for Parochial School Tuition: 'Mueller v. Allen.'" Washington University Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law 26, 107–121.

WEBSITES

Minnesota in the Supreme Court: Lessons on Supreme Court Cases Involving Minnesota. Available online at http://www.ccle.fourh.umn.edu/mueller.pdf; website home page: http://www.ccle.fourh.umn.edu (accessed February 13, 2003).