Vouchers With Blinders?

Cleveland case tests court's church-state reasoning

Don a black robe for a moment and be a judge in an important case now heading for the US Supreme Court involving the separation of church and state:

Ohio taxpayers currently are paying for nearly 4,000 children in Cleveland to attend mainly church-run schools. The state, forced to take over the city's failing public schools, gives a $2,500 tuition voucher for each child to use at any school of their parents' choosing. But that amount is so low that most students can afford to go only to church-supported parochial schools.

Last week, a federal appeals court ruled 2 to 1 that the effect of such a low payment was government endorsement of religion, saying the program "does not permit private citizens to direct government aid freely [but] restricts their choice to a panoply of religious institutions." The dissenting judge said students still had options for secular schooling.

If the US Supreme Court takes this case, as expected, it may rule differently, using its new-found reasoning from a recent decision in a case that involved computer aid to parochial schools. In that decision, the lead decision for the majority stated that government can remain neutral toward religion if it merely intends to fund both parochial and secular schools evenly. And the government need not look at the real effects of such aid.

Two other judges in the majority decision stated such aid can be constitutional if it merely supplements the budget of a church-run school but doesn't supplant it.

Such a new line of legal reasoning might be used in the Cleveland case, thus opening the door for vouchers nationwide. The high court already has some involvement in the case, having issued a stay allowing the voucher program to continue this fall even after a federal district-court judge ruled against it.

Choices for the court

Will the high court decide that vouchers merely must be generous enough, spreading aid around to all schools, to avoid a government bias toward church-run schools?

Or will it see the difficulty for governments and courts in always having to track how indirect government aid, given as vouchers through parents, might or might not benefit a particular religion?

Like many issues, the question of vouchers need hardly be just a court concern. Indeed, vouchers are now a political ping-pong ball.

The latest examples came last month when voters in Michigan and California rejected voucher plans on ballot initiatives. And next month, George W. Bush can be expected to pursue his plan to offer federal money for vouchers to students whose schools repeatedly fail to meet standards.

Such political actions show why the issue of vouchers should be everyone's concern, especially when the Supreme Court is moving fast in its evolving reasoning on church-state separation.

Vouchers seem attractive because they offer a choice for students stuck in bad public schools. But that freedom of choice must be balanced against the freedom of religion - which includes not letting government favor one religion over another by effectively subsidizing instruction in religiously based schools.

Test for Constitution, community

In some places, vouchers still are experiments in education, testing not only the Constitution but the social compact that binds communities in caring for the schooling of all children.

Many states are choosing to bring more choice into education by funding charter schools that operate within the public system but are free of many bureaucratic and curricular constraints. And many parents with kids in inner-city schools don't want to wait for charter schools to open in their neighborhoods or for long-promised school reform. Meanwhile, experts are trying to design religion-free voucher plans that direct voucher money only to secular nonpublic schools.

Vouchers are on the legal frontier in the continuing constitutional and political struggle over how much Americans can mix their government with religion. The boundary is not an easy one to fix.

On the one hand, Americans can simply watch the high court make a decision on vouchers. But as in its recent decision on the presidential election, the court appears divided.

On the other hand, all Americans can help shape a consensus on the wisdom of vouchers by being citizen "judges" in various political arenas, shaping the national debate. The courts, then, might play only a minor role.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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