Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

29 Kislev 5760 - December 8, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Benefits to Religious Schools

by B. Isaac

The United States Supreme Court heard arguments on December 1 on the permissibility of granting federal educational benefits to religious schools.

Earlier this year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the use of federal funds, under a program known as Title VI, to provide religious schools with books for their libraries, computers for their classrooms and other "educational or instructional equipment" is unconstitutional.

In an earlier decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reached a contrary conclusion.

Present for the argument was Abba Cohen, director and counsel of the Washington Office of Agudas Yisroel of America, which advocates on behalf of Jewish schools across the nation. Agudah participated in an amicus curiae brief urging the Court to uphold the program as constitutionally sound.

Mr. Cohen characterized the Justices as "deeply engaged" in the issue, which will affect an estimated one million American schoolchildren currently attending religious schools, and their questions as "incisive."

Mr. Cohen noted that the "wide-ranging and theoretical nature of the questions" indicated that the "state of the law on the matter of government aid to students in religious schools is something of a muddle. Inconsistencies abound and the existing precedents are therefore less than entirely helpful."

"Hopefully, though," the Agudath Israel representative said, "that fact itself will guide the Justices to seriously rethink the fundamentals of the issue and affirm the common-sense notion that American children in religious schools are entitled to no less governmental support for their reading, writing and arithmetic than their public school counterparts."

The controversy surrounding the case, Mitchell vs. Helms dates back to 1985. It involves a Catholic school in Louisiana that received publicly funded computers, software and library books for use in the secular studies curriculum.

A Catholic school student's mother, concerned that her child might encounter material that had to be "secularized" to comply with the requirement that the computers and software not be used to teach religious subjects, sued a representative of the school board to contest whether the materials ought to have been supplied at all.

A federal program requires public school districts to share instructional equipment in a "secular, neutral and nonideological" way with students enrolled in nearby private or parochial schools.

But a federal appeals court in New Orleans last year struck down the practice, saying that providing educational materials other than textbooks for religiously affiliated schools violates the separation of church and state.

The Clinton administration has defended the law, saying the program has safeguards intended to prevent the equipment and materials from being diverted for religious use.

The Supreme Court has, in the past, ruled that some materials may be provided to parochial schools with public funding, while others may not. The result has been an inconsistent and sometimes confusing set of rules.

The justices' decision could potentially relate to school voucher programs, a hot-button issue at the heart of the debate over taxpayer funding of religious schools and long a source of division in the Jewish community.

Court observers say it is important to watch whether the justices decide the case narrowly, in effect "tinkering with the margins" of how publicly funded materials are supplied to parochial schools, or hand down a broadly rendered decision.

A ruling in the case is anticipated next spring.

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