The Government Can't, May, or Must Fund Religious Schools: Three Riddles of Constitutional Change for Laurence Tribe

28 Pages Posted: 7 May 2008


Three linked puzzles arise with the constitutionality of public funding private schools - where the funding scheme excludes religious schools: how can the demands of both the Establishment and Free Exercise clause be satisfied; what does respecting precedent mean when there is a recent reversal of one line of cases, and when does federalism demand deference to the supremacy of the federal constitution or instead respect for state autonomy? The puzzling conjunction of the free exercise and establishment could lead government actors has led the Supreme Court to call for "play-in-the-joints," allowing some distance between government aid and religious institutions even at if it limits the free exercise of some individuals who at the margin may choose a non-religious path in order to get the public subsidy. The second puzzle - how to respect precedent when a recent new precedent overturns an older one - suggests some respect people's reliance on surrounding precedents, here governing the pre-existing relationship between religion and government. The third puzzle, federalism's Janus-faced tribute to state autonomy, requires federal supremacy but should permit the variety that decentralization enables. Given these puzzles, consideration of policy effects is justified; it is relevant to consider how mandating public funding of vouchers and tax credits redeemable at parochial schools as part of any public educational aid would likely lead many more families to opt for private religious schools, schools - and would alter the character of schooling and socialization in America. Taken together, stare decisis and the religion clauses suggest that federal courts now should leave room for state experimentation and variety rather than a uniform national solution on the issue of compelled public aid to religious schools. This approach is informed by Professor Tribe's approach to constitutional doctrine not a straight-jacket but instead a tool for addressing complex difficulties in light of past resolutions of analogous difficulties as well as past and enduring normative commitments.

Suggested Citation

Minow, Martha, The Government Can't, May, or Must Fund Religious Schools: Three Riddles of Constitutional Change for Laurence Tribe. Tulsa Law Review, Vol. 42, No. 4, 2008, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-11, Available at SSRN: or

Martha Minow (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

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Griswold 200
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United States

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