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Grand Rapids School District v. Ball

Separating Public And Religious Education

Over the years, the Supreme Court ruled on many different cases that involved the separation of church and state, particularly when it came to public education. For example, it allowed a public school system to loan secular (nonreligious) textbooks to religious school students. It also allowed public schools to provide medical diagnostic services to students in religious schools. On the other hand, it would not allow the public to fund salary supplements for religious school teachers, or to reimburse religious schools for tests they prepared.

Meanwhile, Congress was passing legislation that also affected the relationship between public and religious education. By 1985, the year of Grand Rapids School District v. Ball, Congress had mandated that public schools had to provide all students with certain forms of remedial services. This meant that somehow, public school districts had to reach out to private-school students, including parochial-school students, to insure that they got certain kinds of help and instruction. In Grand Rapids, the school district came up with two programs to fulfill this requirement: Shared Time and Community Education.

Shared Time funded courses during the regular school day that were supposed to supplement the "core curriculum" courses that every school, public or private, had to offer in order to be accredited by the state of Michigan. These supplementary courses were offered right in the private-school building during the regular school day. They included remedial and enrichment math, remedial and enrichment reading, art, music, and physical education. Typically, a nonpublic school student would attend these publicly funded classes for one or two periods a week, or about ten percent of his or her school time during the year. Although they taught in private schools, the Shared Time teachers were full-time public-school employees.

Community Education was a program offered throughout Grand Rapids, both in schools and at other sites--but only after the school day was done. Both children and adults could take Community Education classes, which included arts and crafts, home economics, Spanish, gymnastics, yearbook production, Christmas arts and crafts, drama, newspaper, humanities, chess, model building, and nature appreciation. Teachers of Community Education were part-time public school employees--that is, they were paid by the public school district only for teaching, say, one or two courses a week. If a Community Education course was taught within a private-school building, it was virtually certain that the teacher was also employed full-time during the day by that private school.

Although Shared Time and Community Education were not specifically directed to religious schools, the district court found that, in fact, most of the schools who used them were "religiously oriented" and their regular instruction was "pervasively sectarian." In other words, during these religious schools' regular school day, even when a class was about history, literature, or science, religious ideas would be brought into the discussion. However, there was no evidence that any religious instruction was offered as part of either of the publicly funded programs.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Grand Rapids School District v. Ball - Significance, Separating Public And Religious Education, Taking The Lemon Test, The End Of A Symbolic Union