The elusive line: Justice William J. Brennan and nonpublic education

Angeline Cepelka, Marquette University


This is an analysis of the impact of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., on American nonpublic education in the twentieth century and an overview of his interpretation of the First Amendment regarding the relationship between church and state. Although that relationship is typically referred to as a "wall of separation," Brennan described it as an "elusive line" which must be faithful to the intentions of the Constitutional framers but continually adjusted to meet the needs of a changing society. In addition, this is an examination of Justice Brennan's personal belief system, his judicial style, and the ways in which, as a prominent twentieth-century Catholic, he integrated his religious faith and intellectual worldview with his responsibilities as a Supreme Court Justice. Neither hostile nor indifferent toward religion, Brennan believed in separating the practice of his faith from his professional duties, often declaring his loyalty to both the Church and the Constitution. The primary focus of this work includes the ten major Supreme Court decisions regarding nonpublic education for which Brennan wrote either the majority opinion or a separate concurrence or dissent. Attention is also given, however, to selected church-state opinions which clarify his approach to interpreting the establishment and free exercise clauses. References to his other education-related opinions and to more than a hundred of his addresses, articles, and tributes provide a framework for examining his nonpublic school opinions. In many ways, William Brennan's impact on nonpublic education may be perceived as a negative: financial assistance he did not provide and religious freedom he did not aid. In other respects, however, he has positively contributed to jurisprudence regarding nonpublic schools a number of clear, thoughtful, objective standards, based on an attempt to be faithful to history, against which future judicial decisions may be measured. Although nonpublic schools as institutions have been deprived of material resources because of his legal approach, nonpublic school students as individuals will benefit for a lifetime from his determination to protect their rights.

Recommended Citation

Cepelka, Angeline, "The elusive line: Justice William J. Brennan and nonpublic education" (1992). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9227118.