In an important church-state decision, the Supreme Court may have opened a constitutional door for school vouchers.
Its 6-to-3 decision on Wednesday approved the spending of federal money for computers in religious schools. Four justices argued that courts need not determine if government aid to a school supports a religious mission as long as the intent was not to do so. Was the government just "neutral" in its motive?
This line of reasoning could easily apply to a voucher system where government money given to parents for spending on any school might, like computers, be used for both secular and religious purposes.
Two other justices who concurred with the decision, however, advised greater caution in letting official aid possibly support a religious cause. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said aid should supplement but not supplant money that a religion would otherwise spend on its programs.
That point is well taken. Religious instruction and doctrine are central to most parochial schools. How can aid such as computers or money not be diverted for religious teaching?
Government has always provided such public services as sewers, police, and health services to religious groups, as it does for the general public. Is giving aid to academic schools run by a church any different? Don't both, in effect, support a religion?
In past decisions, the court has tried to make fine distinctions, arguing over the effects as well as the intent of government "neutrality." Courts decided if aid promoted or endorsed a religion - and entangled both church and state in a way that may be harmful to both. It's not an easy task.
The courts must continue to look at the real effects of such aid. The reasons are many. Some religions don't run schools, and would resent the government aid that supports the mission of those religions with schools. Taxpayers would see their money go to benefit one religion over another. And if the government provides massive aid, it might also begin to influence a religion's practices.
The court needs to ensure safeguards against government aid being diverted for religious purposes. As cases on various voucher experiments work their way up the courts, that need is more urgent.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society