The opinion of the court was delivered by: GURFEIN
We are again confronted with the question of the constitutionality of an Act of the New York Legislature relating to nonpublic schools, the children who attend them, and their parents. The plaintiffs are an unincorporated association and individuals who are residents of the State of New York and who pay income taxes and other taxes to that State. Some of the plaintiffs have children attending public schools. The defendants are the Commissioner of Education, the Comptroller and the Commissioner of Taxation and Finance of the State of New York.
Jurisdiction is alleged under United States Code, Title 28, Sections 1331, 1343 (3), 2281, 2283, 2201 and 2202. The amount in controversy, exclusive of interest and costs, is alleged to be in excess of $10,000.
By consent of all parties, a motion to convene a three-judge court pursuant to Title 28, Sections 2281 and 2283, was granted, and this Court was convened.
The plaintiffs seek to enjoin the defendants from approving or paying any funds or according tax benefits as provided in the Act to be described. The State seeks a dismissal of the complaint on the merits but asserts no jurisdictional bar to maintenance of the action.
Since no trial has been had, the attack upon the several parts of the Act assumes that they are each facially unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Act (N.Y.Laws of 1972, c. 414) is divided into five parts, three of which are attacked by the plaintiffs as being in violation of the establishment clause which guarantees the separation of Church and State, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment.
These three parts of the statute which are under attack may be summarized as follows:
A. Section 1 provides for grants of money directly from the State Treasury to nonpublic schools for "maintenance" of the buildings if the nonpublic school has been designated during a base year as "serving a high concentration of pupils from low-income families for purposes of Title IV of the Federal Higher Education Act of nineteen hundred sixty-five (20 U.S.C.A. § 425)."
If the school qualifies under the federal standard, it is to be given a direct grant of $30 per pupil in attendance, which is increased to $40 per pupil to those schools which are more than twenty-five years old.
The grants, which are given directly to the particular nonpublic schools eligible for such grants, are to be in reimbursement of "maintenance and repair" costs incurred in the preceding year. "Maintenance and repair" is defined as "the provision of heat, light, water, ventilation and sanitary facilities, cleaning, janitorial and custodial services; snow removal; necessary upkeep and renovation of buildings, grounds and equipment; fire and accident protection; and such other items as the commissioner [the State Comissioner of Education] may deem necessary to ensure the health, welfare and safety of enrolled pupils." Each qualifying school which seeks an apportionment is required to submit to the Commissioner an application which shall include an audited statement of the expenditures of maintenance and repair of such qualifying school for the base year.
This part of the Act is entitled "Health and Safety Grants for Nonpublic School Children" and is prefaced by certain legislative findings. These recite that: (1) it is the primary responsibility of the state to ensure the health, welfare and safety of children attending both public and nonpublic schools; (2) "[financial] resources necessary to properly maintain and repair [deteriorating] buildings are beyond the capabilities of low-income people whose children attend nonpublic schools;" (3) teachers are given incentives by the Federal Government to teach in these poor areas; (4) healthy and safe nonpublic schools contribute to the stability of urban neighborhoods; and finally (5) "[to] insure a healthy and safe school environment for children attending nonpublic schools, the state has the right to make grants for maintenance and repair expenditures which are clearly secular, neutral and non-ideological in nature."
B. Section 2 of the Act provides for flat tuition grants from the State Treasury to parents with family incomes of less than $5,000 per annum who have children attending elementary or secondary nonpublic schools. The grant is in the sum of $50 a year for children in grades 1 through 8, and $100 in grades 9 through 12. The tuition reimbursement cannot exceed 50% of the actual tuition payment made by the parent. The Commissioner is given "responsibility for the administration of the program" and is given authority to "promulgate such regulations as are necessary to carry out the provisions of this article." This section is entitled "Elementary and Secondary Education Opportunity Program."
Section 2 is prefaced by legislative findings that (1) "[the] vitality of our pluralistic society is, in part, dependent upon the capacity of individual parents to select a school, other than public, for the education of their children"; (2) the Supreme Court of the United States has recognized this "right" of selection, but the "right" is diminished or denied to children of poor families whose parents have the least options in determining where their children are to be educated; (3) any precipitous decline in the number of nonpublic school pupils would cause a massive increase in public school enrolment and costs which would seriously jeopardize quality education for all children and aggravate an already serious fiscal crisis in public education; and (4) it is a legitimate purpose for the State to partially relieve the financial burdens of parents who provide a nonpublic education for their children.
C. Sections 3, 4 and 5 provide that an individual shall be entitled to subtract, for State income tax purposes, from his Federal adjusted gross income an amount shown in a table for his New York adjusted gross income, multiplied by the number of his dependents, not exceeding three, attending a nonprofit nonpublic school on a full time basis, provided that he has paid at least fifty dollars in tuition for each such dependent.
This exclusion may be taken only by parents with adjusted gross incomes of from $5,000 to $25,000 who do not receive a tuition assistance payment under Section 2. The exclusion would be as much as $1,000 for each child, up to three children, enrolled in grades 1 through 12 with the net benefit to taxpayers apparently as shown in note 6, supra. The amount of income that may be excluded is reduced as the individual's adjusted gross income increases. The exclusion is deducted from adjusted gross income and is available to taxpayers whether they itemize or take the standard deduction.
This part of the Act is prefaced by legislative findings (§ 3) that (1) statutes already provide for the deduction from gross income for tax purposes of amounts contributed to religious, charitable and educational institutions; (2) nonpublic educational institutions are entitled to a tax exempt status by virtue of legislation which has been sustained by the courts; (3) by their existence, such educational institutions relieve the taxpayers of the State of the burden of providing public school education for the children who attend nonpublic schools; (4) tax laws also authorize deductions for education related to employment; and (5) similar modifications of Federal adjusted gross income should also be provided to parents for tuition paid to nonpublic schools.
We have stated the legislative findings offered in support of each part of the statute in detail because we wish to make it clear that we accept these findings, except where they purport to state principles of applicable constitutional law. They sum up legislative purposes which are cast as secular in intent. Thus, we must start with the assumption that the Legislature intended to preserve the health and safety of children who attend nonpublic school in low-income areas. Similarly, we must start with the assumption that the Legislature intended to provide a quality education for all children who attend nonpublic schools in low-income areas. Similarly, we must start with the assumption that the Legislature intended to provide a quality education for all children and to nurture a pluralistic society by giving money from the State Treasury to poor parents for tuition in nonpublic schools. And lastly we must assume that taxpayers as a body have, indeed, been relieved up to now of the burden of providing public school education for the children who attend nonpublic schools.
In sum, we do not go behind the statements of the New York Legislature, although it is manifest that, regardless of the variety of secular arguments advanced to support the legislation, the prime legislative concern is to see that religious parochial schools do not go under for lack of financial support. If that is constitutionally permissible, it is a worthy objective and one that should not be lightly set aside in the alleged interest of public education. Both public and nonpublic education can exist side by side. Neutrality forbids discrimination in favor of one system over the other.
Whether the main reason for this legislative concern is the fear that an intolerable financial burden will be cast upon the public schools if the nonpublic schools do go under, or whether the main reason is the survival of religious education, is not the particular judicial concern. We must weigh not only the purpose of the legislation but its effect on the traditional separation of Church and State in this country. As to the former, we accept the legislative statements. As to effect, we must exercise the judicial function of interpreting what effect the legislation will have upon areas protected from invasion by the constitutional guaranty.
This is, in essence, a conflict between two groups of extraordinary good will and civic responsibility. One group fears the diminution of parochial religious education which is thought to be an integral part of their rights to the free exercise of religion. The other group, equally dedicated, believes that encroachment of Government in aid of religion is as dangerous to the secular state as encroachment of Government to restrict religion would be to its free exercise. Since the policy of separating Church from State is not merely one of policy but of constitutional provision, the ultimate determination of such conflicts must rest in the judicial branch. And the judges must be especially careful in this delicate area not to allow their personal predelictions on policy to circumscribe their judgment as to the constitutional effect of particular legislative proposals. We must make a constitutional decision between these two worthy objectives. Yet, as an inferior federal court, we are not permitted to view the religion clauses of the First Amendment in a literal or even in an historical fashion. We have only to determine their meaning as authoritatively expounded by the Supreme Court. We shall, therefore, discuss the constitutionality of each of the three parts of the statute under the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court as we understand them.
The findings of the Legislature in respect of the needs of parochial schools in low income areas must, as we have said, be accepted as fact. For us to delve into the reasons why parochial education is stratified by the boundaries of richer or poorer districts would be improper, for that would be trenching on the prerogatives of religious denominations which must determine their own priorities and administration without State interference under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, as well as under the negative implications of the Establishment Clause. It is not to be gainsaid that slum-area parochial schools do have financial troubles. The issue is whether it is constitutional for the State to maintain them. Of the estimated 280 schools in the low income areas, which the Legislature seeks to help, all or practically all, it was conceded upon the argument, are related to the Roman Catholic Church and teach Catholic religious doctrine to some degree. It is at this point that we must pause to review the history of the Establishment Clause in the courts in the light of the respective contentions of the parties.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment (Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 60 S. Ct. 900, 84 L. Ed. 1213 (1940); Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105, 63 S. Ct. 870, 87 L. Ed. 1292 (1943)), provides in part that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . . ."
In Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 67 S. Ct. 504, 91 L. Ed. 711, the Supreme Court was for the first time required to determine what was "an establishment of religion" in the First Amendment's conception (see id. at 29, 67 S. Ct. 504). It was there recognized by all the Justices that not simply an established church, but any law respecting an establishment of religion is forbidden and that schools teaching religion come within the scope of the clause prohibiting the "establishment of religion."
The precise issue in that case, upon which the Court divided five to four, was the constitutionality of a New Jersey statute which allowed reimbursement of parents for the bus fares of children attending parochial schools as well as public schools; the particular provision was held constitutional. In view of the broad meaning attributed to the Establishment Clause by all the Justices, it is instructive to consider the limitations set upon their own decision by a majority of the Court. In the words of Mr. Justice Black for the majority, the "establishment of religion" clause "means at least this: . . . 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 form they may adopt to teach or practice religion." Id. at 15-16, 67 S. Ct. at 511. Nor is the prohibition only against a tax levy to support religious teaching. It is also against using tax-raised funds for that purpose. Mr. Justice Black wrote: "New Jersey 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" (emphasis added).
The majority of the Supreme Court did conclude, nevertheless, that the reimbursement of bus fares to parents was public welfare legislation, and that New Jersey could not be prohibited from extending its general state law benefits to all its citizens without regard to their religious beliefs. But the Court was careful to note in support of its decision that "[the] State contributes no money to the schools. It does not support them." 330 U.S. at 18, 67 S. Ct. at 513.
The general language, however, did not remove the delicacy or the difficulty of the issues raised in succeeding cases. For we are a nation which recognizes value in religion but seeks to maintain neutrality in that sphere. Neutrality is not merely a state of mind, however. Neutrality inevitably means a relationship to religion, one way or another. And thus the Court formulated a two-fold test for sustaining legislation alleged to violate the Establishment Clause: There must be a secular legislative purpose and a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion. School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 222, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844 (1963). The Court recognized that this test "is not easy to apply," but that a law which "merely makes available to all children the benefits of a general [New York State] program to lend school books free of charge" is not in violation of the Establishment Clause. Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236, 243, 88 S. Ct. 1923, 1926, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1060 (1968). This decision brought forth three dissents, as well as a concurrence by Mr. Justice Harlan on the limited ground that the statute there involved "does not employ religion as its standard for action or inaction." Id. at 250, 88 S. Ct. at 1930.
The bifurcated test of intent and effect was again accepted in Walz v. Tax Commission, 397 U.S. 664, 669, 90 S. Ct. 1409, 25 L. Ed. 2d 697 (1970), a case to which we shall advert later. Furthermore, to the two tests was added a third, that the statute must not involve an "excessive entanglement" with religion. Id.
Yet, the issue of direct financial grant to parochial schools had not yet confronted the Court. Last year, such an issue was finally presented in the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S. Ct. 2105, 29 L. Ed. 2d 745 (1971). This case is not only the most recent, but the most closely in point to the question of direct grants to primary and secondary parochial schools under Section 1 of the statute ...