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Supreme Court Rules on Funding Equipment for Religious Schools

Share The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that federal tax money could be used to pay for computers and other instructional equipment for religious schools on Wednesday. The 6 to 3 decision included three opinions weighing in on the longstanding controversial issue.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing the federal government to pay for computers and other instructional equipment. The 6 to 3 decision in Mitchell v. Helms included three opinions about the issue.

Does Supreme Court Ruling Open the Door for Vouchers?

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6 to 3 decision that federal tax money could be used to pay for computers and other instructional materials for religious schools.

Do you think this ruling will open the door to school vouchers and federal expenditures for religious schools? Should taxpayers who send their children to religious schools receive some benefits from government funds?

To log your opinion on this thorny issue, go to today's Education World message board.

The ruling overturns two previous court decisions that limited the amount of public money that could be contributed to religious schools.

The case stems from a 1985 suit filed in Louisiana, alleging, among other things, that Chapter 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981, part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, violated the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution.


The Clinton administration is pleased with the Court's decision. In a written statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said the decision is about equity and making sure all students get the support they need, not about opening the door to vouchers.

"The Court's decision today is not about vouchers," Riley said. "Unlike vouchers, the computers and other instructional materials provided for private school students under Title VI must be supplemental to the basic education that otherwise would be provided for these students."

One of the Clinton administration's major education goals for 2000 is to make sure every classroom is connected to the Internet and that all students are technologically literate.

The U.S. Catholic Conference applauded the court's decision, stating that because their parents pay federal taxes, it is only fair that children who attend religious schools receive the same educational benefits public-school children do. "This may be one of the most significant decisions that impacts the rights of students in religious schools to enjoy equal access to technology and other resources necessary for a quality education in the 21st century," stated Mercy Sister Lourdes Sheehan, the U.S. Bishops' Secretary for Education, in a press release by the organization.


Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a plurality opinion that said the government might give money to religious schools as long as it doesn't result in the advancement or inhibition of religion. The decision points out that the court has consistently turned to the neutrality principle, which upholds aid that is offered to a broad range of groups or persons without regard to their religion.

Thomas also wrote that this federal program is permissible because it determines aid neutrally, making a broad array of schools eligible without regard to their religious affiliations or lack thereof. "It also allocates aid based on the private choices of students and their parents as to which schools to attend."

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined Thomas in his plurality decision.


Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, joined by Justice Steven Breyer, wrote in a concurring decision that Thomas goes too far in announcing a rule of unprecedented breadth for the evaluation of challenges to government school-aid programs. She wrote that rule is particularly troubling because its treatment of neutrality comes close to assigning that factor singular importance in the adjudication of future challenges to school-aid programs.

Although neutrality is important, O'Connor wrote, the court should not treat a per-capita aid program such as this one the same as true private-choice programs.


Justice David Souter, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a dissenting opinion, stating that Thomas and the Court's plurality have broken with the fundamental First Amendment's Establishment Clause. That clause prohibits Congress and the states from making any law respecting an establishment of religion.

Souter takes issue with the plurality's use of neutrality as a stand-alone criterion of constitutional intent: "Hence, if we looked no further than evenhandedness, and failed to ask what activities the aid might support, or in fact did support, religious schools could be blessed with government funding as massive as expenditures made for the benefit of their public school counterparts, and religious missions would thrive on public money."

Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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