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Published in Print: July 14, 1999, as Law Update

Law Update

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Judge Draws a Line on Technology Aid
To Religious Schools:
A federal judge has upheld a Wisconsin program that subsidizes Internet access at schools and colleges, including religiously affiliated schools. But the judge struck down a portion of the program that provided direct cash grants to religious schools as reimbursement for Internet hookups that they had already arranged for on their own.

Both aspects of the Educational Telecommunications Access Program were challenged by a group of Wisconsin taxpayers as a violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

The program is a state version of the federal E-rate program, in which Internet access and phone service for schools and libraries is subsidized by telecommunications providers.

The Wisconsin program was created in 1997 and authorizes Internet access and video links for school districts, private schools and colleges, technical colleges, and public library systems. The video links can be used for distance-learning courses.

Under the program, a participating school is charged $100 a month for a data link and $250 a month for a video link, well below the actual cost of about $640 and $2,300 a month, respectively.

Twenty-two religious elementary and secondary schools received data links, and five religious high schools had video links. Of $204,000 spent monthly for data links under the program, about $22,000 covered private schools, most of which were religious schools. Some $25,000 out of $359,000 spent on video links was spent on private schools and colleges.

The program was later amended to benefit schools that had already established such connections. Such schools receive cash grants that can be used for any educational technology purpose, including payments on an Internet service contract or for computer hardware or software. Some $59,000 out of nearly $2 million awarded under that portion of the program has gone to religious schools and colleges.

In a June 22 ruling, U.S. District Judge John C. Shabaz of Madison, Wis., upheld the data and video links benefiting religious schools but struck down the cash grants for the other religious schools.

The judge said the subsidies for data and video links clearly had a secular purpose, because they were meant to aid students in both public and private schools. Furthermore, the services provided "are themselves a mere conduit and are entirely neutral as to the content of the information transmitted through them," he said.

The judge had a problem with the direct cash grants for religious schools that already had contracted for Internet hookups. Despite attempts by the state to restrict the use of the grants for educational technology, nothing would prevent a religious school from using the grants to buy religious software, he noted.

Jeffrey Kassel, a lawyer representing the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, said opponents of the subsidy program upheld by the judge were considering an appeal.

Internet Legal Guide: Access to the Internet has raised a host of other legal issues for schools, and the National School Boards Association has a new book to help administrators and school lawyers sort them out.

The book addresses such matters as student access to pornographic and other inappropriate World Wide Web sites, Internet filtering software, electronic mail, and copyright issues.

Legal Issues and Education Technology: A School Leader's Guide uses many examples drawn from real-life anecdotes (and legal cases) to illustrate the questions. For example, what if "Johnny" uses school Internet access to learn how to build a bomb? Could the school be held liable?

"If a jury felt that the school district's supervision of Johnny's Internet access was inadequate, the school district might be held liable," the book says. It calls for "vigilant" supervision of student use of the Internet.

The book notes that many legal issues raised by school technology are in uncharted waters. But it provides some useful tools, such as sample "acceptable use" policies and sample forms for students and parents to sign. It also examines questions regarding employee e-mail and electronic communications to school board members.

Copies of the book are available for $35 each by calling the NSBA Distribution Center at (800) 706-6722, or by faxing an order to (301) 604-0158.

Church and State: Questions about the level of cooperation legally allowed between public schools and religious groups have prompted three organizations to join together to produce a booklet addressing the topic.

For More Information

"Public Schools and Religious Communities:
A First Amendment Guide"
is available online courtesy of the Freedom Forum. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.) The free guide is also available from the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, or by calling (615) 321-9588.

"Public Schools and Religious Communities: A First Amendment Guide" was produced by the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va.-based foundation, along with the American Jewish Congress, based in New York City, and the Christian Legal Society in Annandale, Va.

The guide focuses on such activities as cooperative arrangements in which public school children receive mentoring through local churches.

The central advice is that public schools and religious groups may interact without violating the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion as long as the schools use secular criteria under which all responsible community groups may participate in a program.

"The local church can and should be one of the public schools' best resources," said Steven T. McFarland, the director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. "Nothing in the First Amendment requires otherwise."

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has endorsed the booklet. The guidelines "are an invitation to America's faith community to become much more active in helping to educate and nurture" public school students, he said in a written statement.

--Mark Walsh mwalsh@epe.org

Vol. 18, Issue 42, Page 14

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