Mitchell v. Helms (2000)

The Supreme Court looked at whether Chapter 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981, as applied in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Chapter 2 was a federal program that through state and local agencies provided educational materials and equipment to public and private elementary and secondary schools to implement secular, neutral and non-ideological programs. At the time of the case, about 30 percent of Chapter 2 funds spent in Jefferson Parish went to private schools, most of which were religiously affiliated.

In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that Chapter 2 was “not a law respecting an establishment of religion” simply because many of the private schools receiving Chapter 2 aid in the parish are religiously affiliated. Rather, the Court held that what is important is whether the government assistance was neutral toward religion or advancing religion. The Court thus set out three primary criteria to determine whether government aid has the effect of advancing religion, under which the aid does so if it: (1) results in governmental indoctrination, (2) defines its recipients by reference to religion, or (3) creates an excessive entanglement. According to these three criteria, as applied in Jefferson Parish, the Chapter 2 aid was religiously neutral and so did not violate the Establishment Clause.