Indiana county’s plan to fund religious school spurs lawsuit

Thursday, May 11, 2000

A promise by an Indiana county to provide government funds garnered from
casino gambling to a Catholic school has been challenged in federal court on
First Amendment grounds.

Harrison County, in the far southeastern part of the state, receives a
portion of revenues from a riverboat casino that operates in the county. In
March, the Harrison County Council entered into a “cooperation agreement” with
Saint Joseph School, a parochial high school in the county, to provide $52,000
from the county’s casino funds to the school.

“The purpose of this agreement is to set forth the framework and plan in
which Harrison County will provide Saint Joseph School certain monies to improve
the quality of education in Harrison County, Indiana,” the agreement states.

The agreement further stipulates that the funds will be used to expand
classroom space, buy computers, a photocopier, TVs and VCRs for all the
classrooms, and create after-school programs. In early April the Harrison County
Council agreed to appropriate the funds to the Catholic school.

The Indiana Civil Liberties Union, representing a county farmer, sued
Harrison County in federal court on May 3, challenging the agreement as
unconstitutional and seeking a court order preventing the county from turning
over the public funds to the sectarian school.

John Krull, executive director of the ICLU, said the agreement violates both
state and federal Constitutions because “it represents an establishment of

Indiana’s Constitution includes a provision that says no public funds should
be used “for the benefit of any religious institutions.”

Gordon D. Ingle, an attorney for Harrison County, said the county did not
intend to advance or promote Catholic education, but was only trying to help the
county’s students. Ingle noted most of the casino funds would go to the county’s
public schools.

In 1998, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the use of federal
education funds to provide instructional equipment, including computers, to
sectarian schools. The 5th Circuit’s decision in Mitchell v. Helms was
appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which considered the case last