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Court to consider school voucher case

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2002



WASHINGTON

For nearly 20 years, the US Supreme Court has been gradually lowering the wall separating church and state, making it easier for religious schools to receive government aid.

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By focusing on the concept of government neutrality toward religious groups rather than mandating a hands-off relationship between church and state, the court has blurred the line barring tax revenues from flowing to faith-based schools.

Today, the nation's highest court takes up a case involving a school-voucher program in Cleveland that could produce a landmark decision, extending even further the court's doctrine of neutrality.

The justices are being asked to determine whether school vouchers violate the separation of church and state by using tax dollars to send public-school students to private religious schools. If upheld, the case could open the door to substantial amounts of taxpayer money flowing to private religious schools across the country.

Such a development could dramatically change the structure of public education in America, empowering and enriching private religious schools at the expense of public schools. Even more significant, it would mark a further evolution in the court's approach to the First Amendment's establishment clause, opening the door to a new era of partnership between government and religion, from aid to parochial schools to government support for a wide range of faith-based initiatives favored by the Bush administration.

"This is huge," says Douglas Laycock, a law professor and church-state scholar at the University of Texas. "All the opinions so far are carefully hedged and qualified," he says of the court's church-state decisions since 1983. "Vouchers are the really big program they haven't dealt with."

One indication of the potential far-reaching implications of the case: More than 30 organizations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides of the issue. Those in support of vouchers include the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Among those opposing vouchers are the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Jewish Committee, and the Ohio School Boards Association.

The essence of tension

In broad terms, what is at stake in the Cleveland voucher case is the essence of the tension that the nation's Founding Fathers built into the First Amendment. On one hand, it bars government from taking actions "respecting the establishment of religion." But in the same sentence, it also forbids government from taking action "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion.

Both clauses work as a check against the other becoming more dominant, in the same way that other parts of the Constitution provide for checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. In effect, the Supreme Court is seeking to achieve what it views as the proper constitutional balance between church and state.

The Cleveland voucher case is only the latest battleground over how that balance should be achieved.

Strict separationists believe religion is strongest when it exists completely apart from government, with no government aid and the binding regulations that may come with that aid. Advocates of neutrality believe that religious organizations - including parochial schools - are just as entitled as secular organizations to receive aid when it is offered by the government.

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