Wisconsin defends subsidy of Internet access at all public, private schools

Thursday, December 3, 1998

The Wisconsin attorney general has asked a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit challenging a state budget allocation that would give money to all state schools, including private, religious ones.

In early November, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates a strict wall of separation between church and state, sued the state challenging the passage the Educational Telecommunications Access program within the Wisconsin Budget Act of 1997. The measure grants public funds for high-speed Internet access to the state's public, private and sectarian schools.

The group's suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, charged that the program runs afoul of both the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions.

“As taxpayers and citizens of the State of Wisconsin, the plaintiffs are injured by the impermissible advancement and support of religion caused by the use of state funds to provide grants and subsidized telecommunications access to sectarian institutions under the Educational Telecommunications Access Program,” the group argued in its suit.

The state subsidies breach the establishment clause of the First Amendment, according to the group.

In a four-page answer to the suit filed Nov. 25, Wisconsin Attorney General James Doyle denied the program violated the separation of church and state and asked the court to dismiss the suit.

Jeffrey Kassel, attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the state's answer was straightforward, in that it admitted factual allegations about the state program. He added, however, that the state's response failed to provide an adequate defense for the program.

“I think the state's answer squarely puts the issue before the court,” Kassel said. “I'm optimistic the court would find the program to be an impermissible government subsidy.”

Kassel added that at some point he would file a summary-judgment motion on behalf of the foundation.

Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Bruce Olsen, however, said that the state would argue before the federal court that the program satisfies both the state and federal constitutions.

“The statute represents the Wisconsin Legislature's belief that all Wisconsin students need equal access to tools of learning for the next millennium, and that includes high-speed Internet access and access to long-distance interactive learning,” Olsen said.

“Since the state makes both available to public and private, secular and sectarian institutions on a nondiscriminatory basis, then I don't believe the program violates the parameters of either constitution.”