Mueller v. Allen

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In Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388 (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an Establishment Clause challenge to a Minnesota program authorizing tax deductions for various educational expenses, including private school tuition costs, even though the great majority of the program's beneficiaries (96%) were parents of children in religious schools.

The Court began by focusing on the class of beneficiaries, finding that because the class included "all parents," including parents with "children [who] attend nonsectarian private schools or sectarian private schools," id. at 397 (emphasis in original), the program was "not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause," id. at 399 (citing Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 274, 70 L. Ed. 2d 440, 102 S. Ct. 269 (1981) ("The provision of benefits to so broad a spectrum of groups is an important index of secular effect")).

Then, viewing the program as a whole, the Court emphasized the principle of private choice, noting that public funds were made available to religious schools "only as a result of numerous, private choices of individual parents of school-age children." 463 U.S. at 399-400. The Court found that this ensured that "'no imprimatur of state approval' can be deemed to have been conferred on any particular religion, or on religion generally." Id. at 399 (quoting Widmar, supra, (at 274)). The Court found it irrelevant to the constitutional inquiry that the vast majority of beneficiaries were parents of children in religious schools, saying:

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.

That the program was one of true private choice, with no evidence that the State deliberately skewed incentives toward religious schools, was sufficient for the program to survive scrutiny under the Establishment Clause.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote this 5-4 decision, holding onto the support of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor despite her opposition to religion in other Establishment Clause cases.