Wis. Version of 'E-Rate' Challenged on Religion Grounds

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Students at St. Aloysius now have access to the Internet at school, and they have the state of Wisconsin to thank.

The Roman Catholic elementary school is one of some 30 religious K-12 schools throughout Wisconsin that have taken advantage of a state initiative, which took effect this fall, that offers discounts on telecommunications services to educational institutions. For St. Aloysius, it meant a new T-1 line--a powerful connection that allows students to enter cyberspace from any classroom in the building.

"We wouldn't have been able to do this without the discount," said John Brennan, the principal of the Sauk City, Wis., school. "The cost would have been prohibitive."

But the deal that made this possible for his school is now being challenged in federal district court. In a lawsuit filed last month, a Madison, Wis., group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that including religious schools in the state initiative--which resembles the federal "E-rate" program--violates the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion.

"Even though there's nothing inherently religious about these services, they are being used to aid religious instruction," charged Jeffrey Kassel, the plaintiff's lawyer. "The instruction in parochial schools has an inherent intertwining of the secular and the religious."

The challenge has drawn the attention of some national education groups, which advocate allowing religious schools to continue participating in the E-rate program. ("School Groups Join Forces in Quest of Telecomm Discounts," Oct. 2, 1996.)

'A Direct Subsidy'?

Schools participating in Wisconsin's Technology for Educational Achievement initiative may each have one data line connected for Internet use for which they cannot be charged more than $100 or $250 a month, depending on the speed the connection will allow. Normally such services cost about $700 a month.

As with the federal program, the discounts provided by Wisconsin's initiative are paid for by fees collected from telecommunications companies. The arrangement, private school groups contend, keeps the program from creating unconstitutional church-state entanglements.

"There is no money that goes to the private schools," said Sharon Schmeiling, who directs the Wisconsin Association of Nonpublic Schools. "It's not as though the government is cutting checks for the private schools."

A number of other states, including California and Rhode Island, have arrangements with telecommunications companies to provide discounts to schools, including religious ones.

But the Freedom From Religion Foundation says the Badger State discount amounts to public support for a religious cause.

"It is a direct state subsidy to parochial schools," Mr. Kassel said. "And while establishment-clause jurisprudence is not always crystal clear, the [U.S. Supreme] Court has never approved direct subsidies to religious schools to further their educational missions."

Although the Supreme Court has upheld state-financed programs that provide secular textbooks to parochial school students, the Internet can provide access to religious material, pointed out Steven Green, the legal director of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "I think this is a fascinating case. It's a situation where the law has yet to catch up with educational advances."

'Not a Voucher'

Mr. Kassel said he did not know enough about the E-rate initiative to comment on the constitutionality of the federal program, which just last week sent out its first wave of letters telling schools how much of a discount they are entitled to.

Discounts provided under the E-rate apply to many more telecommunications services than the Wisconsin program does.

Officials of both public and private school groups based in Washington said they were confident the federal discount program passes constitutional muster.

"I don't understand why, if we're not talking about tax dollars, that there would be a problem," said Carolyn Breedlove, a technology lobbyist for the National Education Association.

Although the NEA often finds itself at odds with private school groups on such issues as vouchers, Ms. Breedlove said, "this is not a voucher."

The federal discount program has so far avoided litigation over the inclusion of religious schools.

"We're keeping ourselves tuned in to what's going on [in Wisconsin]," said Greg Van Slambrook, a research associate for the United States Catholic Conference education department. "But the private school community has been really pleased with how the federal E-rate program is set up and hasn't heard anyone question it."

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Page 5

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Wis. Version of 'E-Rate' Challenged on Religion Grounds
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