Court OKs federal gift to religious school

A citizens group has lost a major battle in its effort to stop the federal government from giving surplus land to religious institutions.

A divided US Supreme Court ruled Jan. 12 that the group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has no legal standing to block the transfer of 77 acres worth $1.3 million to Valley Forge Christian College.

Although Americans United charged that the gift of former Army hospital grounds to the sectarian Pennsylvania school violates the Constitution, the high court's 5-to-4 majority sidestepped the church-state issue. Instead, it focused on the technical question of whether members of the citizens group had suffered real harm by the transfer.

''We simply cannot see that (Americans United) have alleged an injury of any kind, economic or otherwise, sufficient to convey standing,'' said Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court.

Their claim that the government has violated the constitutional ban on mingling church and state ''does not provide a special license to roam the country in search of governmental wrong-doing and to reveal their discoveries in federal court,'' wrote Justice Rehnquist. ''The federal courts were simply not constituted as ombudsmen of the general welfare.''

In a sharply worded dissent, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. accused the majority of using the ''rhetoric'' of legal technicality to avoid dealing with the substantial issues. He scored the court for being ''plainly hostile to the Framer's understanding'' of the constitutional separation of religion and state. The majority uses the argument over legal standing ''to slam the courthouse door'' against plaintiffs entitled to full consideration of claims, said Brennan.

In other action the court:

* Upheld by a 5-to-4 vote a California law requiring deputy probation officers to be US citizens.

* Ruled 5 to 4 that Indiana may revoke mineral rights if the owner has not used them after 20 years.

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