WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court has just pried a few large bricks out of the wall separating church and state.
In a major decision announced yesterday upholding government aid to parochial schools in Louisiana, the nation's highest court endorsed the idea that taxpayer money may - under certain circumstances - be spent to provide instructional materials to private, religious schools.
In a 6-to-3 decision, the court decided that federal aid may be given to parochial schools when the distribution is made on a neutral, per-pupil basis to students in all schools in a school district, both public and private.
The decision is viewed as good news by supporters of school-voucher programs, who were watching the case for an indication of how the court might vote on that issue.
In general, the decision marks the continuation of a gradual shift in the high court's approach to the church-state divide. The majority has been more willing than prior courts to treat parochial schools on a more equal and even-handed basis with public schools.
The court appears to be adhering to a strict church-state stance in school-prayer cases. Last week, the justices ruled that student-led prayer at high school football games violates the Constitution by creating the appearance of a state preference for a particular faith.
But in other areas of church-state jurisprudence, the court appears to be moving in a new direction based on the concept of government neutrality toward religion, rather than a hands-off approach that some critics say amounts to hostility toward religion.
In the context of aid to parochial schools, the majority saw no reason why students attending religious schools shouldn't qualify for the same per capita federal aid as those attending secular private and public schools.
"If the religious, irreligious, and areligious are all alike eligible for governmental aid, no one would conclude that any indoctrination that any particular recipient conducts has been done at the behest of the government," writes Justice Clarence Thomas.
Not so, says Justice David Souter in dissent. "Government aid corrupts religion," he writes.
And he adds, "The plurality position breaks fundamentally with Establishment Clause principle, and with the methodology painstakingly worked out in support of it."
The ruling comes at a time when many conservative religious groups have been pushing to increase the profile of faith and worship in America by promoting the public display of the Ten Commandments, prayer in public schools, and school voucher programs.
They contend that in an era of school shootings and declining moral standards, the government should adopt a more supportive approach to religion.
On the other side, advocates for a high wall separating church and state maintain that any government involvement in matters of faith is dangerous, and that the most effective way to protect freedom of religion is to keep government as far away as possible from it.
The court's decision involves a federal education program that provided instructional materials, such as computers and library books, on a per student basis to all students in each school district across the country.
A group of taxpayers in Jefferson Parish, La., objected to public aid being used in religious schools and filed suit claiming that it violated the First Amendment. They argued the aid amounted to assistance that would help a school spread a religious message.
A federal appeals court agreed and struck down the aid program. Parents of students in religious schools appealed to the Supreme Court.
They argued that the federal activity does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, provided all aid to religious schools is distributed on a neutral basis to all schools.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society