Suit Challenges Private-School Use of Chapter 2

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Washington--A group championing the separation of church and state filed suit in federal court last week charging that the way virtually all states use Chapter 2 block-grant money for religious-school students is unconstitutional.

The case, filed in federal district court in New Orleans by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is the second in the nation to challenge the legality of Chapter 2 funding for religious schools. Both it and a similar suit brought in 1983 by the American Civil Liberties Union contest the use of block-grant funds for equipment, materials, and instructional services in such schools.

The Americans United suit, Helms v. Clausen, also challenges a number of Louisiana laws that it charges unconstitutionally provide aid to religious schools, including one program in which publicly paid special-education teachers teach at sectarian schools and another that provides transportation for parochial-school students.

The Louisiana case is the latest legal aftershock of two July 1 Supreme Court decisions--Aguilar v. Felton and Grand Rapids v. Ball--limiting public aid to religious-school students.

Brought on behalf of four taxpayers, the suit names Louisiana's chief state school officer, Thomas Clausen, other state officials, and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett as defendants.

Marie Robinson, an Education Department spokesman, said that because department lawyers had not yet reviewed the complaint, she would have no comment.

Details of Suit

The $500 million allocated this year for Chapter 2 is distributed to states on a per-pupil basis. States then disburse money to school districts based on a formula devised by a state-appointed panel.

The federal program requires equitable participation for private-school students.

Joseph L. Conn, spokesman for Americans United, said the suit was filed in Louisiana because it provides the highest level of per-pupil aid for private-school students and "seemed like a logical place to begin to test the array of programs" that aid religious schools.

The Americans United complaint says that Louisiana's $10-million Chapter 2 program provides funds for equipment, such as microcomputers and audiovisual aids, and instructional services, such as teachers' inservice training and student basic-skills courses, that are used by religious schools.

The complaint charges that there are no safeguards to ensure that public money is not being used to advance religion, but that any monitoring system would itself violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

A 'Catch-22'

That rationale--called a "Catch-22" by Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist--was used by the Court majority in the two rulings this past summer that limited public aid to religious schools.

The major one, Felton, barred remedial-education teachers paid through Chapter 1 from teaching at religious schools, thus invalidating the way in which some 200,000 religious-school students had received Chapter 1 aid and casting doubt on the constitutionality of other state and federal programs that aid religious schools.

The Grand Rapids ruling struck down two state statutes in Michigan permitting publicly funded programs in private religious schools.

After the Felton decision, Secretary Bennett said the Education Department would continue to allow Chapter 2 money to be used for instructional materials and equipment on the premises of religious schools. He added, though, that states should reconsider Chapter 2-financed instructional aid in religious schools.

Americans United has also filed two suits challenging guidelines issued by the Secretary regarding the private-school provisions of the Chapter 1 program.

Related Developments

In other developments involving the litigation prompted by the Felton decision:

Officials in Pennsylvania last week asked a federal judge to grant seven cities--including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh--a one-year delay in implementing the shifts required by Felton. Federal courts have granted one-year delays to schools in New York City and several of New Jersey's biggest cities.

A delay would permit those Pennsylvania cities, whose Chapter 1 programs for religious-school students have been on hold this fall, to begin providing services again.

By this week, the Council of Great City Schools, representing the nation's 35 largest urban districts, was to have joined a suit brought by Americans United in federal district court in Kansas City, Mo., according to Michael Casserly, legislative associate with the council.

In that case, Pulido v. Bennett, the plaintiffs are challenging the Education Department's position that public-school officials should pay all the extra administrative costs related to serving religious-school students as a result of Felton.

Americans United has broadened the suit it brought here against the department, alleging that virtually all the private-school provisions of Chapter 1 are now unconstitutional.

Vol. 05, Issue 15

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