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Group Challenges Chapter 1 Aid To Missouri Religious Schools

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Testimony has concluded in a federal district-court challenge in Missouri to the government's practice of providing Chapter 1 (formerly Title I) funds for remedial instruction at private parochial schools.

The chief issue in the case is whether this federal aid violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Education Department says that approximately 3.5 percent of all Chapter 1 students attend private schools, but the agency does not have accurate figures on how much is spent on these students.

Although a case on the same issues was decided in favor of the government at the federal district-court level in 1980, that case was not heard by either a federal appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thus, said Robert D. Nesler, a Justice Department attorney working on the case--Wamble v. Bell--there is still a need for a "definitive" ruling on the matter.

The Justice Department is defending the Education Department in the lawsuit; there is also an intervenor-plaintiff and an intervenor-defendant.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is sponsoring the suit on behalf of G. Hugh Wamble, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Said Lee Boothby, general counsel for Americans United, "We consider this case a major showdown over whether the federal government can funnel aid to church-operated schools."

Until last year, the funds in question were provided under the Title I program, established in 1965 as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (esea) to provide financial assistance to local educa-tion agencies serving areas with high concentrations of students from low-income families. The program was renamed Chapter 1 in the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981.

Although most Chapter 1 students attend public schools, federal law since 1965 has specifically required participation of eligible private-school students.

In Missouri, the aid is provided for educationally disadvantaged private-school students--most of them Catholic or Lutheran--through a contract awarded to the Blue Hills Homes Corporation (bhhc), a federal contractor brought in to "bypass" the school systems in the state.

The "bypass" provision is used when a school system fails to provide for "equitable" participation in the program by eligible children from nonpublic schools.

Based on federal investigations conducted in Missouri school districts beginning in 1976, bhhc was awarded three contracts in 1977 to provide educational services in St. Louis, St. Joseph, and Jefferson City.

By the 1981-82 school year, bhhc was serving 48 school districts in Missouri.

In the major precedent in the case--a 1980 New York case called National Coalition for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Harris--a three-judge federal district court panel ruled that the state's Chapter 1 program was religiously neutral, providing services directly to needy children and not to the schools, and that the program did not promote "excessive entanglement" between the government and religious institutions.

Mr. Nesler said similar cases, in "different stages of development,'' are awaiting either trial or decision in Minnesota, Kentucky, and New York.

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