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Judge Questions New York Aid to Nonpublic Schools

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A federal judge has questioned the constitutionality of two New York State programs that loan computer software and library books to nonpublic schools, including religious institutions.

A group of state taxpayers has challenged the programs, enacted by the state legislature in 1984 and 1985, as violating the clauses in the New York State and United States constitutions that bar government establishment of religion.

The defendants in the case, Fisher v. Regan, are state Comptroller Edward V. Regan and other state officials, the East Syracuse-Minoa school district and its officials, and several private religious schools and church organizations.

In an important procedural ruling on Feb. 26, U.S. District Judge Con. G. Cholakis said the lawsuit should proceed to trial because the plaintiffs have raised important factual questions about the software and library materials provided to the private religious schools. The judge denied the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Under the programs, public-school districts are obligated to buy a limited amount of software and library materials requested by local private schools. The districts then loan the materials to the private schools for student use.

Public-school pupils also benefit from the program. The state provided districts with about $8.3 million for software programs and $5.7 million for library materials in 1990-91, according to court documents.

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued several rulings on the provision of textbooks and other instructional materials to students in private religious schools. The Court has upheld the loan of secular textbooks to students in sectarian private schools but has struck down the provision of other instructional materials that could be used for religious as well as secular purposes.

Judge's Concerns

Judge Cholakis expressed concern that two computer software programs loaned by the East Syracuse-Minoa district to area religious schools could easily be diverted to religious uses in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The judge also said that some of the software requested by the religious schools appears to be designed more for teachers than for students.

Also, Judge Cholakis added, public-school officials had apparently failed to make sure that library materials requested by the private religious schools were free of religious content, as required by the state law.

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