Court’s ruling will add fuel to voucher debate

Sunday, July 9, 2000

The Supreme Court poked a big hole in Mr. Jefferson's “wall of separation” last week when it ruled that federal dollars may be used to buy computers and other instructional materials for religious schools.

The 6-3 ruling in Mitchell v. Helms overturned earlier court decisions barring most forms of government aid to parochial schools.

It's now likely that religious schools will have access to a wide variety of government-funded services and instructional materials currently available to public schools.

The decision has provoked strong reactions from combatants in the 50-year fight over aid to parochial schools.

On one side, advocates of strict separation between church and state are outraged by the decision, arguing that it compels taxpayers to support the religious mission of parochial schools.

On the other side, proponents of increased accommodation between government and religion are celebrating the inclusion of religious schools in federal aid programs that assist other schools.

What will be the impact of this ruling?

Undoubtedly, many religious schools will now seek equal funding in a variety of government programs. But others may reject government-funded programs because, as one wag put it, “with shekels come shackles.”

The Clinton administration — which supported the aid program upheld by the court — will use the decision to achieve its goal of connecting every classroom in the nation to the Internet.

But the big question is this: What does the ruling mean for the voucher debate? If the government can provide computers for religious schools, can it provide vouchers for parents to use in paying tuition at those schools?

The answer isn't clear, because the court is splintered three ways on how to apply the First Amendment's Establishment clause in cases involving government funds and religious schools.

Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the three dissenting votes in Mitchell v. Helms, are likely to rule against vouchers, viewing them as unconstitutional aid to religion.

Four of the six justices in the majority — Clarence Thomas (who wrote the opinion), Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice William Rehnquist — appear to support almost any government aid to religious schools and are therefore likely to rule vouchers constitutional.

But it's difficult to predict how Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer will view this issue.

Although they voted with the majority to uphold the government-funded purchase of computers for religious schools, they argued in a concurring opinion that government aid may supplement, but must not supplant, funds that a parochial school could otherwise spend on its own programs.

Justices O'Connor and Breyer could declare that vouchers are unconstitutional subsidies of religious organizations by the government. Or they might view vouchers as constitutional, since the money goes to parents who may spend it on the private school of their choice.

Whatever the decision may portend for vouchers, however, last week's ruling means a lower, more porous wall between church and state.

Will that be good for parochial schools? Or will government aid compromise the religious mission of such schools?

Stay tuned.