Just one week after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could decide the scope of federal technology funding for religious schools, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that a statewide subsidy of telecommunications services does not violate the Constitution by including parochial as well as public schools.
The program in question, called “Educational Telecommunications Access,” offers discounts on high-speed internet access and video data lines to public and private Wisconsin schools and colleges. The program is administered by the Technology for Education in Wisconsin Board, created as part of the 1997-99 state budget.
The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sued members of the board last November, claiming that parochial schools should not be allowed to receive the discounts because their participation constitutes an illegal state subsidy of religion.
Schools that take part in the subsidy program may request access to one data line or video link. The schools pay about $100 per month for internet access through a T-1 line, and the state pays the rest.
The program does not control the content of information transmitted by the links, which could be used by parochial schools to transmit religious information. But U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled June 23 that the subsidies provide a relatively small benefit to religious schools.
“Any school, public or private, religious or secular, is eligible to participate,” Shabaz wrote in his decision. A key factor in the decision, Shabaz said, was the fact that the program sends money directly to the service providers, not to the schools themselves, so parochial schools can’t convert the subsidized telecommunications links into a direct economic benefit to be used for the advancement of their religious mission.
However, cash grants to assist schools that had set up internet access on their own before the program went into effect are not constitutional, Shabaz said, because they could have the effect of advancing religion. Cash grants could be used by parochial schools to purchase religious software, for example.
It remains to be seen whether Shabaz’s ruling will have any effect on the Supreme Court’s decision, which is expected next spring. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case plan to appeal.
“It seems a little bit like pretense to say these huge subsidies don’t help advance religion or foster entanglements,” said Anne Gaylor, head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “It didn’t seem logical to us.”