In a potential watershed case involving aid to parochial schools, the US Supreme Court is considering whether providing government-funded computers to religious schools violates the separation of church and state.
The case, set for oral argument Dec. 1, involves federal education block grants in Louisiana. But the court's decision will also apply to private religious schools nationwide, and will have a major impact on President Clinton's proposal to spend as much as $800 million to connect every classroom and school library in America to the Internet.
On a broader level the case presents the nation's highest court with an opportunity to clarify the constitutional boundaries of church-state relations.
The justices are at a crossroads over whether to embrace a line of constitutional analysis that requires maintaining a high wall between government and religion, or to adopt a stance that would permit the government to treat private religious schools on a more equal basis with public schools.
"It has the potential to be very big," says Robert Boston of the Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The court has been dancing around the issue for a number of years."
The case is being closely followed by religious-liberties experts who believe, in addition to resolving the government-aid issue, it may indicate the court's position on school vouchers.
At the core of the church-state debate is the court's interpretation of 16 well-chosen words found at the beginning of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Some analysts say the best way to preserve religious liberty is to avoid any government support, payment, or other entanglement in matters of faith. The Constitution forbids the use of tax dollars to advance religious endeavors of any kind, they say.
Other analysts say that prior Supreme Court rulings have mandated what amounts to a position of government hostility and discrimination against religion and the religious. They say the First Amendment requires that government maintain a neutral posture, treating religion with neither favoritism nor hostility.
The Louisiana case springs from a lawsuit filed by taxpayers in the Jefferson Parish School District. They object to the government providing computers and other instructional aids to religious schools under a federal block-grant program administered by the local school board.
The block grants are allocated based on the number of students in a school district, regardless of whether they attend public or private school.
Advocates for the congressionally approved program say it complies with the First Amendment because aid is allocated on a neutral basis.
Opponents say the aid nonetheless constitutes impermissible government support of religion because it helps free up other parochial school resources for use in religious teaching. They also argue that the First Amendment requires more than just government neutrality in church-state relations.
"For more than a half-century, this court has consistently relied on a few basic, interrelated principles when dealing with state aid to church schools," writes Lee Boothby, a Washington lawyer representing the Louisiana taxpayers. In his brief, he identifies the principles as whether the aid subsidizes religious indoctrination, whether it favors or disfavors any religion, and whether it supplants a core function of the religious school. Mr. Boothby argues that proponents of state aid to parochial schools are seeking to replace those principles with a single requirement - state neutrality toward religion.
Supporters disagree. For the government to adopt an aid program for all American school children except those attending religious schools would be religious discrimination, they say.
"Families of children who attend nonpublic schools pay taxes just like their public school counterparts," writes Patricia Dean, representing parents in Jefferson Parish who favor the aid program. "It certainly does not advance the cause of religious liberty to discriminate in this way against families who exercise their constitutional right to choose religiously affiliated schools."
In taking the case, the Supreme Court will resolve a split on the issue between two different appeals courts. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana decided that such aid to religious schools was a violation of the First Amendment, while the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found that the same aid program in California did not violate the Constitution.
Legal analysts say the case could come down to the vote of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society