Taxpayer money can be used to buy computers and other instructional materials for religious schools, the Supreme Court ruled June 28 as it lowered the figurative wall of separation between church and state.
The 6-3 ruling in Mitchell v. Helms should speed federal efforts to connect every American classroom to the internet. The decision also is sure to be cited as a big victory for proponents of using public money for tuition aid to families who send their children to religious schools.
Politically charged legal fights about tuition vouchers are being waged in numerous lower courts.
In splintered voting, the justices overturned two 1970s Supreme Court decisions banning provisions of many materials to parochial schools. More recent rulings already had blunted the effect of those decisions.
Resolving a 15-year-old dispute from Louisiana, the justices upheld Title VI of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
The law gives public school districts money for special services and instructional equipmentsuch as computers, software, and library resourcesand requires them to share the equipment in a “secular, neutral, and nonideological” way with students enrolled in private schools within the district’s boundaries.
More than 70 percent of the students who benefit from the 35-year-old federal program attend public schools; most of the rest attend religiously affiliated schools. In Jefferson Parish, La., 41 of 46 private schools participating in the federal program are religious.
Overall, the federal government provides about 7 percent of the money states spend on education, although the percentage is significantly higher in poorer states.
A federal appeals court, ruling in the Jefferson Parish case, struck down the flow of federal aid to parochial schools, saying the provision of educational materials other than textbooks violates the First Amendment’s ban on “an establishment of religion.”
Three parish taxpayers had sued federal, state, and local officials in 1985, when the case focused more on slide projectors, not computers. Parents of children in religiously affiliated schools intervened in the case to defend the program, later joining forces with the Clinton administration.
In striking down the federal program, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals relied heavily on the two 1970s Supreme Court rulings. Now, the justices say the appeals court was wrong.
“To the extent that [those two rulings] conflict with this holding, we overrule them,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court’s main opinion.
Thomas was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy in an extraordinarily sweeping opinion that would allow almost any government aid to religious schools.
But Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen G. Breyerwho supplied the critical votes to reach a majority on the nine-member courtrefused to go that far. In an opinion by O’Connor, they called the Thomas opinion’s “expansive scope … troubling.”
Justices David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
The federal budget for fiscal year 2000 provides $425 million for states and public school districts to buy computer hardware, educational software, and other technologies. The funding is aimed at moving closer to the Clinton administration’s goal of connecting every American classroom, both in public and private schools, to the internet.
Supporters of the decision argue that computers and other instructional technologies are neutral resources and are merely 21st-century versions of the textbooks that have been permitted since the law was enacted.
But opponents of the ruling disagree. “Once you are connected to the internet, this technology could be used for religious instruction,” said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association.
Kirby Ducote, a spokesman for the state’s Catholic schools, said a court ruling in favor of the taxpayers would have forced the removal of school materials “and that would have caused chaos.”
“The computers are an integral part of [our] curriculum,” said Denise Otillio of Archbishop Rummel High School in suburban New Orleans. Otillio used a $78,000 state grant to set up a writing lab with 28 computer-equipped work stations at the school.
United States Supreme Court
National School Boards Association