Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388 (1983)

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Prior to the 1980s, the Supreme Court had frequently struck down laws that had the effect of providing aid to religious institutions. Exceptions to this general pattern existed. For example, in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947), the Court upheld the reimbursement of transportation expenses for parents of school children, including the reimbursement of the costs of transporting children to religious schools. Moreover, in Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236 (1968), the Court affirmed the loan of secular textbooks to all school children in a state, including those attending religious schools. But generally, the Court wielded the three-part test of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), requiring that laws have a secular purpose and effect as well as no excessive entanglement between religion and government, to invalidate aid to religious schools.

Mueller inaugurated a new trend in the Court’s jurisprudence. At issue in Mueller v. Allen was a state law that permitted taxpayers to deduct from their gross income certain educational expenses relating to tuition, textbooks, and transportation necessary to send the taxpayer’s children to school. In practice, the principle beneficiaries of the deduction were parents of children in private, religious schools. A majority of the Court, in an opinion by then Associate Justice William Rehnquist, upheld the law from a challenge under the Establishment Clause. Applying the Lemon test, the Court concluded that the law had a secular purpose and effect and did not excessively entangle government and religion.

Justice Rehnquist’s opinion highlighted two factors that would become prominent in the decisions of the Court over the next two decades. First, he emphasized that the challenged income tax deduction was only one of many deductions available to taxpayers and that it was a deduction available to all parents of school-aged children, whether their children attended public or private schools, including private religious schools. Second, he noted that the deduction funneled state assistance, in the first instance, to the parents rather than to the private, religious schools. These schools received money as a result of the independent choices of parents. In light of these two considerations, Rehnquist’s opinion found it of no constitutional consequence that most of those taking advantage of the educational deduction were parents of children in religious schools.

Mueller’s focus on the choices of individual recipients of aid in funneling the aid to religious institutions became a prominent part of the Court’s jurisprudence over the next twenty years. In particular, Mueller’s reasoning anchored the opinion of the Court’s majority, also written by now Chief Justice Rehnquist, in Zellman v. Simmons–Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002). In Zellman, which involved the constitutionality of a school voucher program that allowed students to use expense vouches to attend a school of their choice, the Court upheld the program largely because the aid received by religious schools under the program came to them by virtue of the independent choices of individual parents. Also, the Court reiterated Mueller’s conclusion that the constitutionality of the voucher program was not threatened by the mere fact that the majority of parents using the vouchers had sent their children to religious schools.


References and Further Reading

  • Choper, Jesse H. Securing Religious Liberty: Principles for Judicial Interpretation of the Religion Clauses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 169–188.
  • Nowak, John E., and Ronald D. Rotunda. Constitutional Law, 7th ed. St. Paul, MN: Thomson–West, 2004, pp. 1429–1458.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236 (1968)
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971)
  • Zellman v. Simmons–Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)

See also Accommodation of Religion; Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947); Lemon Test; Secular Purpose; State Aid to Religious Schools; Zellman v. Simmons–Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002)