Boston — Advocates of church-state separation won a stunning victory in the United States Supreme Court Monday, when the justices decided that public aid to parochial schools was in violation of the Constitution's First Amendment. The ruling came in a pair of cases in Michigan and New York. Despite the slim 5-to-4 vote in both cases, the decisions appear to effectively end (at least for now) more than a decade of efforts by some church groups to garner public funds to support nonpublic education.
The decision was also a major defeat for the Reagan administration, which had backed ``parochiaid'' on the basis that religious schools ease the burden on public coffers.
Parochiaid opponents had been concerned that the court might view these practices as an ``accommodation'' of religion rather than an intrusion. The court has recently used the ``accommodation'' argument in allowing religious Christmas displays on public property -- saying that the ``festive'' part of the holiday observance does not promote one church over another. It also upheld a Minnesota tuition tax deduction for parents of schoolchildren, including those in religious schools.
But the parochiaid rulings come on the heels of other church-state decisions in which the justices have held fast for ``separation.'' In the past two weeks the high tribunal -- in a much-publicized ruling that also was a sharp rebuff to the White House -- struck down moment-of-silence laws in states that set aside the time specifically for prayer.
The court also recently overturned a Connecticut law protecting employees who refused to work Sundays, citing the law as an intrusion of religion on secular matters.
Parochiaid supporters now will likely try to introduce congressional legislation or a constitutional amendment to circumvent the high court ruling. A move to reinstate school prayer is already under way in Congress.
In deciding on parochiaid, the court appeared to use, as it has done in the past, a three-part test invalidating laws that (1) lack a secular purpose; (2) have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion; or (3) foster an excessive entanglement of government with religion.
Associate Justice William J. Brennan, writing for the majority, indicated that such programs impermissibly advance or promote religion.
Justice Brennan said: ``The symbolic union of church and state inherent in the provision of secular, state-provided instruction in the religious school buildings threatens to convey a message of state support for religion to students and the general public.''
Referring to the New York case, Brennan noted that the program to give after-school remedial aid to low-income students in private (mainly parochial) schools was well intentioned. He also said care had been taken by city officials to see that public school teachers were not involved in teaching religion.
``But,'' he said, ``this pervasive monitoring by public authorities in the sectarian schools infringes precisely those [constitutional] values at the root of the prohibition of excessive entanglement'' between church and state.
Groups that advocate the complete separation of church and state, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, had opposed public funds for parochial schools as a First Amendment infringement.
In a dissenting opinion in the New York case, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote:
``Under the guise of protecting Americans from the evils of an established church, such as those of the 18th century and earlier times, [this] decision will deny countless schoolchildren desperately needed remedial teaching services.''
The New York program stemmed from a federal law designed to aid low-income families. Nationally, this provision has provided more than $3 billion annually for 5 million students, most of them in public schools. Since 1966, however, New York has used some of this money to pay public school teachers to give remedial instruction to private school students in private school buildings. About 40,000 students in religious institutions benefited.
Last year a federal appeals court invalidated such aid on constitutional grounds.
A federal court in Grand Rapids, Mich., struck down a similar program, in which the city spent $3 million to reinburse teachers to conduct a variety of classes in parochial schools. But the city received twice that amount in state funds to run the program by defining recipients as ``part-time public school students.''
In both cases, the ``shared-time'' programs were challenged by taxpayers, who claimed they resulted in a siphoning off of public funds from public schools.
Past Supreme Court rulings on aid to parochial schools have tried to sort out what is constitutionally permissible and what is not.
For instance, the court has generally approved direct aid to students, but opposed public funding of church-run schools. It has also allowed state subsidies for textbooks and educational materials, but disallowed such aid for field trips and extracurricular materials in private and parochial schools.