The State of Washington is not required by the First Amendment to deny vocational-rehabilitation funds to a blind college student who hopes to become a minister, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week.
But in reaching that decision, five of the nine Justices strongly reaffirmed their position that states do not violate the Constitution when they provide “wholly neutral” educational aid to individuals--regardless of their age--for use in public or church-affiliated schools.
The ruling added new fuel to the debate over the constitutionality of the Reagan Administration’s plan to disburse Chapter 1 remedial-education aid in the form of vouchers that could be used in either public or private schools.
The Court’s Jan. 27 decision in Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind. (Case No. 84-1070) drew accolades from Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who said it was “heartening” for supporters of the Administration’s proposal. The measure would provide the parents of educationally disadvantaged children with vouchers averaging about $600 that could be redeemed at public or private schools for tuition or remedial services.
In a prepared statement, Mr. Bennett acclaimed the Witters ruling “for recognizing that as long as government assistance is provided on a neutral basis, students may use such aid to attend the schools of their choice, whether public or private, including religiously affiliated schools.”
“The Court’s reasoning is heartening for the type of initiatives that are being launched all over the country to foster educational choice for parents and students--including the department’s own proposal on educational vouchers,” the Secretary said.
Opponents of the voucher proposal, however, had a much different view of the impact of the Court’s decision last week.
“We do have a concern that this case might be misinterpreted,” said Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. “There are a number of differences between aid to college students and aid to elementary- and secondary-school students. It’s a distinction the Court has made repeatedly.”
The Witters case began in 1979, when Larry Witters, a blind ministerial student at Inland Empire School of the Bible in Spokane, applied for state vocational-rehabilitation assistance. The state commission that ran the aid program denied his application on the grounds that it violated the state constitution, a ruling that was upheld on administrative appeal.
Mr. Witters then filed suit in a state court, which upheld the administrative ruling on the same grounds. On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the decision but based its ruling on the First Amendment.
Applying the three-part test developed by the Supreme Court for determining the constitutionality of state aid to religious institutions, the state high court held that although the program had a clearly secular purpose, the provision of aid to Mr. Witters would have had the primary effect of advancing religion. The state court noted that it was unnecessary to determine whether the aid fostered excessive government entanglement with religion, the third prong of the test.
‘No Constitutional Barrier’
Writing for himself and three other Justices, Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall said the Court could “find no federal constitutional barrier on” aid to Mr. Witters on the basis of the facts presented in the case.
“As far as the record shows, vocational assistance provided under the Washington program is paid directly to the student, who transmits it to the educational institution of his or her choice,” Justice Marshall wrote. “Any aid provided under Washington’s program that ultimately flows to religious institutions does so only as a result of the genuinely independent and private choices of aid recipients.”
Thus, he said, the aid program does not unconstitutionally advance religion.
Justice Marshall went on to note that the record in the case had not been sufficiently developed to determine whether the aid program fostered excessive entanglement between government and religion. He then sent the case back to the state high court for either a fuller development of the factual record or a rehearing on whether the aid should be barred under the “far stricter” dictates of the state constitution.
In three concurring opinions, the five remaining Justices agreed with the result reached by Justice Marshall but reproached him for failing to include the Court’s 1983 decision in Mueller v. Allen in his analysis. In Mueller, the Court upheld the constitutionality of a Minnesota law that provides tax deductions for certain educational expenses, even though the vast majority of the law’s beneficiaries are the parents of children attending church-affiliated schools.
“On the understanding that nothing we do today lessens the authority of our decision in Mueller, I join the Court’s opinion as well,” wrote Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist joined in Justice Powell’s concurrence.
Associate Justices Byron R. White and Sandra Day O’Connor wrote separate concurring opinions noting the applicability of Mueller to the case.
A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1986 edition of Education Week