Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education (1930) is one of two early cases wherein the Supreme Court of the United States dealt with the rights of students in religiously affiliated nonpublic schools. The other case was Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (1925). However, in neither dispute did the Court rely on the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The controversy in Cochran arose when taxpayers challenged a law that taxed citizens for the purpose of furnishing school books to children, arguing that it violated not only their rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment but also their property rights. The Supreme Court dismissed the due process claim and addressed only the taxpayers’ property contention, determining that the state was providing a public benefit and therefore the taxation was not an unconstitutional taking.
In 1928, the state of Louisiana passed Acts No. 100 and 143. Act No. 100 required the state to furnish schoolchildren with school books free of charge. Act No. 143 provided that the state’s severance tax fund would provide for the costs created by Act No. 100. According to the statutes, all children in the state, regardless of whether they attended public or nonpublic schools that were religiously affiliated or nonsectarian, would receive school books at no cost, and it directed the state board of education to implement this policy.
The litigation began when taxpayers unsuccessfully sought an injunction to prevent the state board of education and other officials from implementing the laws. The taxpayers argued that the state laws violated both their rights to due process and property. A state trial court and the Supreme Court of Louisiana rejected the taxpayers’ claims and refused to grant the injunction.
On further review, the Supreme Court affirmed in favor of the state. At the outset of analysis, the Court pointed out that no question existed under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution. To this end, the only issue that the Court found necessary to address was whether taxation for the purpose of purchasing and providing school books that benefited children at nonpublic schools, whether religious or nonsectarian, amounted to an unconstitutional taking of private property for private purpose.
The Supreme Court explained that an unconstitutional taking occurs when the state takes a citizen’s private property and, instead of using it to further a public purpose, uses the property for the benefit of another private entity. The taxpayers argued that the two Louisiana acts were an unconstitutional taking of their private property, because the acts allowed the state to tax citizens, thereby taking their private property, for the purpose of providing school books to nonpublic schools, which were not otherwise a part of the public school system. The taxpayers described the state’s purpose narrowly and argued that the state’s purpose was to benefit private, religious, sectarian schools.
The Court rejected the taxpayers’ contention, because the text of the statute made no mention of schools, private or public. The Court relied on the literal meaning of the text of the statute, which directed the state school board to furnish school books free of charge to all students in the state regardless of what school they attended. The Court acknowledged that the statutes at issue did not permit or require the purchase of religious books from state funds. Even so, the Court failed to address that religiously affiliated nonpublic schools, in particular, were spared the expense of purchasing school books for their students and that the schools, not the students, retained possession of the books.
Cochran is significant because the Court rejected the taxpayers’ argument that the schools were the ultimate beneficiaries of the school books. In Cochran, the Court adopted the position that the children and the state were the ultimate beneficiaries, essentially laying the groundwork for what has become known as the child benefit test that emerged more fully in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township (1947), wherein the Court upheld a statute from New Jersey that permitted parents to be reimbursed for the cost of transporting their children to religiously affiliated nonpublic schools.
Cochran remains an important case in education law insofar as it established the general principle that laws intended to benefit children, rather than their schools, are constitutional under Establishment Clause analysis. Pursuant to the child benefit test, states have permitted a wide array of benefits to religiously affiliated nonpublic schools and their students, such as transportation, textbooks, and vouchers.