Wisconsin group challenges state subsidies for Internet access at religious schools

Thursday, November 19, 1998

A “nontheists” group has sued Wisconsin lawmakers for creating a program to help subsidize Internet access for private religious and public schools in the state.

Passed within the Wisconsin Budget Act of 1997 was the Educational Telecommunications Access program. The measure states that an administrative board shall “provide telecommunications access to school districts, private schools, technical college districts, private colleges,” and to public libraries.

The 42 schools approved for the program would each pay $100 monthly for high-speed Internet access. The state would pay the rest, about $600 a month or $2,700 a year. So far, most of the secondary schools accepted for the program are sectarian and include schools such as Atonement Lutheran School in Milwaukee and Holy Angels Grade School in West Bend.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of agnostics and atheists based in Madison, Wis., filed a federal lawsuit against the state this month challenging the subsidies on constitutional grounds. The group argues that the state subsidy violates the state and federal constitutions' mandate of separation of church and state by improperly funding religious education.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of Freethought Today, the foundation's publication, criticized the state for including the program in a budget bill, most of which was not made public before passage.

“It appears that this state action is yet another attempt to subvert the Wisconsin Constitution's prohibition against using public funds for religion, as well as the establishment clause of the First Amendment,” Gaylor said. “We have been dealing with this attack against public education in Wisconsin with the Milwaukee voucher program, and this new program is simply part and parcel of the same agenda of our Catholic governor (Tommy Thompson) to fund Catholic education in the state.”

The foundation also notes in its suit that the program contains no “restrictions on how private schools and colleges, including sectarian schools and colleges, may use the state-subsidized” Internet access.

“Participating private schools and colleges may use subsidized data lines and video links to provide religious instruction, training and programming to their students and staff,” the group argues in its suit. “Students and faculty at participating private sectarian schools may, for example, use subsidized data lines to access internet sites that provide religious instructional materials.”

The Wisconsin Catholic Conference, a nonprofit public policy group that monitors state legislation, had urged the legislators to include private schools in the portion of the program providing telecommunications assistance.

Sharon Schmeling, associate director of the conference, said that the group would not have urged the inclusion of private schools if it believed the federal or state constitutions would have been violated.

“We went to the Legislature and pointed out the fact that 15 percent of the state's children are educated in private elementary schools,” Schmeling said. “Those children should receive opportunities to receive technological training before entering public high schools.”

Schmeling also said that the program would not be funded by tax dollars. “The program will be supported by a universal service fund, which is paid for by taxes on telecommunications companies,” she said. “It is not taxpayer money funding the program. Instead the same kind of fund used to subsidize 911 services. No one has argued that religious schools and hospitals cannot have access to 911.”

Moreover, Schmeling questioned Gaylor's assertion that Gov. Thompson was, along with Milwaukee lawmakers, seeking to undermine public education.

“First of all, the governor had to be asked to include religious schools in the program,” she said. “He said he would do so only if the Legislature found that including religious schools would not create constitutional problems. Imputing motives to the governor is merely speculative and the talk of a conspiracy to destroy public education amounts to fear-mongering that is not conducive to educating children.”

Jeffrey Kassel, the foundation's attorney, said it made no difference that the program was funded by taxes on telecommunications companies.

“It is still state money, whether its derived from property taxes, income taxes or taxes on private businesses,” Kassel said. “I hope children in private schools throughout the state do obtain telecommunications training. The question is whether the state should be subsidizing this.”

Kassel termed the program a direct funding of religious schools with no restrictions on the use of Internet access. “The program literally provides subsidized access that otherwise would have to have been paid for by the religious schools.”

Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Bruce Olsen said that the state would deny that the program violated either the state or federal constitutions.

“It may be direct funding, but it does not harm federal or state constitutional provisions,” Olsen said. “There is a pretty good argument that the program's secular purpose is to make sure that all students in the state have access to Internet resources and the kind of distant learning that video links can provide.”

Olsen said the state's answer to the suit is due in federal court on Nov. 24.