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A.C.L.U. Sues To Halt Block-Grant Funding for Private Schools in R.I.

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The American Civil Liberties Union (aclu) has filed suit in Rhode Island over the federal government's practice of distributing Chapter 2 block-grant funds to school districts for use by private schools.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Providence on July 11, charges that the federal funds support religion when they are used to buy certain equipment, including computers and audio-visual equipment.

Such support violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the suit contends.

The block-grant program began last year, after passage of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981, which consolidated more than 30 separate programs into Chapter 2 grants to states and local districts.

Rhode Island is scheduled to get $1.8 million in the coming school year under the program. Of that amount, $365,000 would support programs in private and parochial schools, according to Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Is-land Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Brown said 95 percent of the state's private-school students are in parochial schools.

Temporary Restraining Order

The suit seeks a temporary restraining order to prevent disbursement of 1983 Chapter 2 funds for use by private schools in the state and asks the court to seize materials bought with the money in the past, Mr. Brown said.

"Our position is that these funds have been used to purchase items that do not meet constitutional standards under the First Amendment and that there is not sufficient oversight to ensure that the materials are used for nonreligious purposes," he said.

"The Supreme Court," Mr. Brown conceded, "has not ruled out tax aid to religious schools if certain conditions are met." But he maintained that among those conditions is a prohibition on aid that can be "diverted for religious purposes."

"Audio-visual equipment, though secular, can be used to show religious films," he said. "Other items, such as pre-screened texts, have been upheld by the Supreme Court."

The suit names Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and State Education Commissioner Arthur R. Pontarelli as defendants.

Forrest Avila, legal counsel to the commissioner, said the department's position is that "the Rhode Island block grants are administered in accordance with federal rules and regulations, and in accordance with the Constitution."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization that opposes government involvement in religion, plans to file a suit in Massachusetts similar to the Rhode Island suit, according to Joseph L. Conn, director of media relations.

Decisions in similar challenges to the distribution of Chapter 1 (formerly Title I) funds to private schools in Missouri and New York are expected this summer.

Chapter 1 provides financial assistance to school districts that serve educationally disadvantaged students from low-income families.


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