Lawsuit to target aid to parochial schools. US education secretary accused of trying to evade high-court ban on parochiaid

The church-state fuse has begun to crackle again in the United States. At the center of the controversy: federal aid to church-owned schools. Parochial-school support is a top political priority in the Reagan White House.

The fuse was lighted this summer. On July 1, the US Supreme Court struck down two government programs that aided church-sponsored schools.

Now, Education Secretary William J. Bennett is being charged with trying to keep the aid flowing to church-supported schools in defiance of the law.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced here Thursday that it will bring suit next week against Mr. Bennett for ``failing to implement the rulings of the Supreme Court.'' Americans United has helped to lead the court fight against parochial-school funding by Washington.

Education Department officials declined to comment on the matter.

Bennett, who was educated in parochial schools, has made no secret of his disdain for the court ruling on church-school aid. He called it ``a terrible decision.'' He found it ``hard to fathom, hard to understand.'' He said the court showed ``a fastidious disdain for religion.''

Americans United charges that Bennett is seeking to stall compliance with the court rulings while he looks for ways to get around them.

At issue are federal programs totalling $3.2 billion a year that provide remedial and enrichment courses for 5 million disadvantaged children in public and private schools. The specific programs outlawed used public money to pay teachers who taught those courses in parochial schools in Grand Rapids, Mich., and New York City.

Robert Maddox, executive director of Americans United, charged that since the court rulings, Bennett has been ``encouraging state and local school boards to deliberately delay delivery of vital education services.''

In announcing the suit, Mr. Maddox said that Americans United will seek both injuctive relief against Bennett as well as compensatory and punitive damages against him as an individual citizen.

The suit will be brought in Missouri, a state that has tried to set up a program to educate students from parochial schools in ways that would abide by the court rulings. Maddox charged Bennett is trying to ``stonewall'' Missouri's efforts and keep the parochial school programs there functioning.

Officials from Americans United say Bennett is stalling for two reasons.

First, the Supreme Court decision was 5-to-4 against parochial school aid. If any member of the court retires, President Reagan could appoint a new member who could reverse that ruling.

Second, Bennett may be hoping to ``panic'' Congress into passing an alternative to the present, controversial program. Ultimately, Bennett favors replacing current programs with vouchers, or direct payments to students, which could be spent in either private or parochial schools.

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