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Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as Ruling in La. Limits Aid for Religious Schools

Ruling in La. Limits Aid for Religious Schools

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A federal appeals court has struck down part of a federal education law that allows public school districts to lend library books, computers, and other instructional equipment to religious schools.

The ruling came in a long-running lawsuit that challenged several federal and state aid programs for religious schools in Jefferson Parish, La., a New Orleans suburb. A majority of schools benefiting from the programs are Roman Catholic.

On Aug. 17, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit unanimously struck down the loan of instructional equipment to religious schools in Jefferson Parish under the federal aid program formerly known as Chapter 2.

The program, enacted by Congress in 1981, consolidated several aid programs for elementary and secondary schools into a block grant to states.

The law requires that nonpublic schools wishing to participate also receive aid. The program is now known in the federal education budget as Title VI grants for innovative education program strategies.

The court said the loan of materials such as computers, printers, videocassette recorders, and other equipment that could be converted to religious uses violates the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The ruling could have a nationwide effect, said Steven Winnick, a deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education. "We're unhappy about the ruling," he said. "It held flat-out that it is unconstitutional to lend equipment and books other than secular textbooks" to religious schools.

Other Aid Upheld

In its ruling, the court cited two U.S. Supreme Court precedents from the 1970s that struck down similar aid programs that benefited religious schools.

"What the government is attempting to accomplish through Chapter 2, it may not do," the appellate court said in its opinion last month.

The Chapter 2 program was challenged in a 1985 lawsuit by local taxpayers against the Jefferson Parish district, the state of Louisiana, and the U.S. Department of Education. The lawsuit, organized by the Washington-based group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, also challenged several other aid programs or arrangements that benefited parochial schools in Jefferson Parish.

In separate portions of its lengthy ruling, the appeals panel upheld a state aid program that pays for special education teachers in the religious schools. It also upheld an agreement under which the Jefferson Parish district provided money to a private company that organizes bus transportation for Catholic schools in the parish.

But as for the Chapter 2 program, the court overturned a federal district judge's ruling that upheld the loan of instructional equipment.

In general, the Supreme Court has authorized some government aid for religious schools or their students, such as bus service and the provision of secular textbooks. But it has ruled unconstitutional programs that provide instructional aids, such as slide projectors, that could used for religious purposes.

Broad Effects Seen

The high court's key rulings on such aid were its 1975 decision in Meek v. Pittenger and its 1977 decision in Wolman v. Walter.

The 5th Circuit panel, based in New Orleans, said the high court has not overruled those decisions and therefore the Chapter 2 program as applied in the Jefferson Parish district violated the U.S. Constitution.

The appellate court disagreed with a 1995 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which upheld similar Chapter 2 assistance to parochial schools in San Francisco.

The 5th Circuit judges prohibited the loan of overhead projectors, televisions, film projectors, videocassette recorders, camcorders, computers, and printers to religious schools under Chapter 2.

It also prohibited the loan of library books, saying that the Supreme Court has only authorized the provision of secular textbooks that religious school students would use on an everyday basis.

Mr. Winnick added last week that he believes the 5th Circuit ruling "is clearly in conflict with what the 9th Circuit ruled" in the San Francisco case. "If it stands, it would have a programwide effect."

The department is weighing whether to recommend to the U.S. Department of Justice that the ruling be appealed to the Supreme Court, Mr. Winnick said.

The 1998 federal budget appropriated $350 million for the Title VI state grants last year, but it could not be determined how much of that money resulted in the loan of instructional equipment to religious schools.

President Clinton has tried to eliminate the block grant in recent years, including in his 1999 budget proposal. But Republicans in Congress have saved it and are proposing an increase in fiscal 1999 to $400 million.

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 17

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