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Religious Schools Cannot Join Wis. Voucher Plan, Judge Rules

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A federal court has held that the Milwaukee school-voucher program cannot be expanded to religious schools without crossing the constitutional line between church and state.

Nevertheless, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin is arguing that the state can sidestep that barrier by directing the aid to parents. The Governor continued last week to push his proposal to expand the state-financed Milwaukee program to religious schools, and even suggested that such a program should eventually be instituted statewide.

The federal judge's decision "will not deter our efforts," Mr. Thompson said in a statement. "If anything, it helps reaffirm that we are going in the right direction with a voucher system that gives tuition money directly to the parents, not the schools."

Civil-liberties advocates maintained last week that the vouchers Mr. Thompson has proposed are no different from direct payments. They noted that Mr. Thompson proposes to have tuition payments mailed to participating religious schools at parents' request--a mechanism the Governor says is necessary to prevent fraud.

"We are amazed by the lengths he is willing to go to to succeed in giving tax dollars to religious schools," said Mordecai Lee, the vice chairman of the Wisconsin Coalition for Public Education, an anti-voucher coalition that includes civil-liberties organizations and leaders from several religious groups. "We are fighting this tooth and nail."

Mr. Lee and other civil libertarians also oppose a separate proposal included in Mr. Thompson's budget that could allow sectarian schools to become public charter schools, entitled to state aid.

The Milwaukee choice program, begun in 1990, uses state money to send nearly 880 low-income children to 12 private schools in the city. Mr. Thompson proposed in January to include religious schools in the program. (See Education Week, 1/25/95.)

New York Case

The current law requires participating students to meet family-income guidelines, and stipulates that the state will pay their tuition only at nonsectarian schools.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, lawyers from the Landmark Legal Foundation, an advocacy group based in Kansas City, Mo., argued that the state was infringing on the religious freedom of parents.

Once the state allowed public funds to be used for private school tuition, they argued, it could not bar sectarian schools from the choice plan without denying the plaintiffs--five low-income children and their parents--access to a government benefit based on their religious beliefs.

Judge John W. Reynolds disagreed, and dismissed the case this month. He cited a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that a New York State program that paid the tuition of low-income students attending religious schools had violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of a government establishment of religion.

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