Supreme Court to Decide if Religious Schools Should Get Government Computers

Whether the federal government, within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, can loan computers, software, and other instructional media to religious schools was at issue during oral arguments Dec. 1, 1999, before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Michael W. McConnell, a lawyer for several parents with children in Roman Catholic schools, told the justices the practice is “entirely constitutional.”

Since a high court ruling in the 1970s that prohibited giving religious schools instructional materials, “technology has changed, and this court’s precedents have changed,” McConnell said.

Lee Boothby, the attorney representing two mothers with children in Louisiana public schools, said the practice is not permitted under the constitution. “Computers today are basic to the operation of a school—they are like bricks or the blackboard,” he said. In Mitchell v. Helms (Case No. 98-1648), the justices must decide whether the loan program under federal Title VI, formerly called Chapter 2, violates the First Amendment prohibition against a government establishment of religion.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, ruled the practice is unconstitutional.

Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 authorizes aid such as computers, software, and library material to be loaned for the benefit of students, regardless of whether their schools are religious.

More than 1 million children in religious schools are believed to benefit from the program. The Clinton Administration favors continuing it. Observers are watching how the high court rules in this case for clues on how the court might rule on vouchers.

In similar cases, the trend on the high court has been to allow aid to religious schools. In this proceeding, much of the court’s attention focused on the role of computers. The loan of textbooks to religious schools has been allowed, on the grounds that textbooks cannot easily be converted to religious purposes. Justice Stephen G. Breyer remarked that “computers are today what textbooks were 30 years ago.”

Attorney Boothby argued that computers, unlike textbooks, are “certainly divertable for religious purposes.” The case is expected to be decided next summer.

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