High court refuses to review trio of church-state rulings

Tuesday, October 12, 1999

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to review three cases involving government funding and religion.

The high court turned away an appeal that sought to force Maine's Department of Education to provide funds to help rural families send their children a Catholic school. The court let stand a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that a tax break on the sale of Bibles was unconstitutional. The justices also voted not to review an attempt by New York lawmakers to create a special school district for Hasidic Jews.

Since 1997 several parents in Minot, Maine, have sought funds under the state's school-choice law to send their children to a religious school. The school-choice program grants funds to families in communities with no high school to send their children to private ones elsewhere — except religious ones.

The families, represented by the socially conservative American Center for Law and Justice, argued before state and federal courts that the state's school-choice law was hostile toward religion and violated the parents' rights to the free exercise of religion.

Last April, the Maine Judicial Supreme Court rejected the parents' arguments, concluding, in part, that the establishment clause “has no role in requiring government assistance to make the practice of religion more available or easier.” The following month, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled that Maine had no constitutional duty to help parents pay for their children's education at religious schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in June to hear arguments in December in a Louisiana dispute over the use of taxpayer money to supply computers and other instructional materials to sectarian schools.

Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania decision that invalidated state tax breaks on the sale of Bibles was also left untouched by the highest U.S. court.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in April that the state's sales-tax exemption for religious publications violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Pennsylvania court unanimously found that the tax law had no secular purpose.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge had urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the state court decision, saying it was a legitimate government function “to encourage religion in our communities by exempting religious publications from the sales tax.”

Finally, the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, turned away the New York Legislature's third attempt to establish a school district in Kiryas Joel exclusively for disabled Jewish children. Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted to hear the case, but four votes are required to grant review.

Kiryas Joel is a community of Orthodox Jews about 45 miles northwest of New York City. In 1989, state lawmakers created a Kiryas Joel school district after village residents withdrew their disabled children from the public schools, saying they were traumatized by having to attend class outside the village.

The creation of the district was challenged by the New York State School Boards Association as a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, saying it “singles out a particular religious sect for special treatment.”

After that decision the state Legislature attempted twice more to create a special district for the village. The third law, enacted in 1997, sought to set neutral criteria under which a Kiryas Joel district could be established. New York's highest court invalidated that law last May.