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Church-State Ruling in La. Upholds Capital-Expenses Program

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A federal judge has handed down mixed rulings on several church-state issues in a long-pending challenge to government-financed services provided to children in Louisiana's religious schools.

The U.S. Education Department's Chapter 1 capital-expenses program, which helps school districts deliver compensatory-education services to students at private schools, does not violate the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion, U.S. District Judge Frederick J.R. Heebe of New Orleans ruled.

He also upheld the Jefferson Parish school district's use of separate bus routes for public and private school students.

But he ruled that the district cannot send special-education teachers to religious schools, and that a state program that reimburses religious schools for administrative tasks, such as filing attendance reports, had been run unconstitutionally.

"Even though it was a mixed decision, we are pleased with many aspects of it,'' said Steven Green, the legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The advocacy group backed the suit in Helms v. Cody, which was filed by taxpayers in 1985 against federal, state, and Jefferson Parish education officials.

Before holding a trial in 1990, Judge Heebe issued a summary ruling that federal aid to religious schools under the Chapter 2 block-grant program was unconstitutional. He found that many religious schools in Jefferson Parish were using Chapter 2 money to buy materials and equipment that could be converted for religious use. (See Education Week, April 4, 1990.)

A Secular Purpose

The Louisiana case was the first to challenge the Chapter 1 capital-expenses program, enacted in response to a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The High Court held that providing public Chapter 1 teachers on the premises of religious schools was unconstitutional.

Congress appropriated $41.4 million for the program for the current fiscal year. Districts use the money to pay for vans or mobile classrooms to serve Chapter 1 students from religious schools.

Judge Heebe rejected the plaintiffs' arguments that this amounted to impermissible government aid to religion. He said the program has a secular purpose: providing Chapter 1 services to religious-school students on the same basis as students in public schools.

In ruling unconstitutional a state law under which the Jefferson Parish district has sent special-education teachers into Roman Catholic schools, the judge found that "the assistance is given directly to the schools themselves, and not indirectly through the parents or students.''

As for the state program to reimburse religious schools for administrative tasks, the judge ruled it was constitutional on its face, but that state officials have failed to properly audit documents submitted by schools seeking reimbursement.

In upholding the constitutionality of separate bus routes, he said the cost for busing private school students separately was not "grossly disproportionate'' to the cost of busing public school students.

State and Jefferson Parish school officials could not be reached for comment last week.

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