New crack in church-state wall

The Supreme Court has removed one more small but vital stone from what dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens calls the "high and impregnable wall" constructed by the framers of the US Constitution two centuries ago to ensure the separation of church and state. The court was sharply divided, 5 to 4, in upholding a New York law that allows the state to reimburse private schools -- 85 percent of which are religiously affiliated -- for complying with state academic requirements.

As a result of the ruling, some $9 million a year in public funds will continue to flow to church-supported schools to help them meet the costs of administering state-required tests and other record-keeping. We would tend to agree with the deep feelings expressed by three of the dissenting justices, who termed the decision "a long step backwards in the inevitable controversy that emerges when a state legislature continues to insist on providing public aid to parochial schools." The high court had struct down an earlier version of the New York law in 1973. That one provided lump sum payments to schools for mandated programs and did not, as the current law does, require school costs to be documented.

Certainly no one would deny parents the freedom to send their youngsters to a religiously oriented or any other school of their choice. But the parents themselves and not taxpayers in general should shoulder the financial obligations of maintaining such schools and of seeing to it that they meet state educational standards. This is especially true at a time when most public school systems, long considered a bulwark of US democracy, are struggling to survive financially.

Fortunately, in other recent school-aid rulings the Supreme Court has demonstrated greater care in holding the line against providing government assistance to religion. But any weakening of that vital constitutional "wall" separating church and state ought to concern all Americans.

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