High Court To Hear Case On Title VI

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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to hear a Louisiana case involving government aid to religious schools in the form of computers, library books, and other educational materials.

The case could have important implications in the debate over school vouchers, and even a narrow ruling dealing with the inclusion of religious school students in a federal aid program would have an impact beyond that program.

During its next term, which begins in October, the court will review a federal appellate ruling that struck down the federal aid program formerly known as Chapter 2 as it was applied in Jefferson Parish, a New Orleans suburb.

"The big question in this case is whether the Supreme Court is going to continue to apply the principle" that direct government aid to religious schools is unconstitutional, said Lee Boothby, the lawyer for a group of Jefferson Parish taxpayers that challenged federal and state aid programs benefiting religious schools.

The appeals court last year invalidated the district's loan of instructional equipment, library books, and computers to religious schools.

The hardware and materials were financed with money from a broad federal block grant that is now known as Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Most of the private schools benefiting from the aid in Jefferson Parish are Roman Catholic.

The Clinton administration joined with a group of Catholic school parents from Jefferson Parish in urging the Supreme Court to take the appeal in Mitchell v. Helms (Case No. 98-1648).

'Modern Technology'

In a brief filed with the high court, the administration couched its position in terms of its goal of providing every American child with access to computers in school.

"In practical effect," U.S. Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman argued in the brief, "the court of appeals has invalidated a form of federal assistance that is highly relevant for private schoolchildren, and also central to the effort to bring modern technology to all students."

The Catholic parents noted in their appeal that the Supreme Court has upheld the loan of textbooks to children in religious schools. But last year's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the appeal says, precluded federal support for newer technologies for those same students.

"Despite Congress' worthy intention to serve all schoolchildren, without discrimination, the decision below consigns those who attend religiously affiliated schools to the use of textbooks," while other children benefit from advanced calculators and other technology tools, the parents' brief argues.

The 14-year-old Helms case has followed an unusually long path before reaching the high court. In 1985, the taxpayers' group sued the Jefferson Parish district, the state of Louisiana, and the U.S. Department of Education in federal district court in New Orleans.

Along with the federal Chapter 2 program, the suit challenged the state's unusually generous aid programs for nonpublic schools. The suit alleged that Catholic schools in the district were able to acquire overhead projectors, videotape recorders, televisions, and other equipment with taxpayers' money.

'Carte Blanche'?

"They were given carte blanche authority to order whatever they wanted" under the state and federal aid programs, Mr. Boothby said.

In 1990, a federal district judge ruled that Chapter 2 as applied in Jefferson Parish violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against government establishment of religion.

But seven years later, another federal judge reconsidered the case and upheld the Chapter 2 aid to religious schools. That judge ruled that the instructional equipment and materials lent to the schools were secular, that the benefits of the program were made available on a neutral basis, and that safeguards were in place to ensure the items were not converted to religious use.

The New Orleans-based 5th Circuit appellate court reversed that decision last year. The court said the loan of instructional equipment and library materials violated two Supreme Court decisions from the 1970's on aid to religious schools.

Although the high court had upheld the loan of secular textbooks to religious school students in a 1968 decision, Board of Education v. Allen, the court ruled in Meek v. Pittenger (1975) and Wolman v. Walter (1977) that the government may not lend staff members or educational equipment that a religious school could easily use for religious purposes.

The appeals court prohibited filmstrip projectors, overhead projectors, televisions, computers, phonographs, and other equipment from being lent to religious schools. The ruling also held that library books fell under the prohibited category because it "could see no way to distinguish library books from the periodicals, maps, charts, sound recordings, and films" barred by the high court in Meek.

New Guidance

In their high court appeal, lawyers for the Catholic school parents argue that the appellate ruling fails to allow federal aid to keep up with changes in technology.

"Today, the Chapter 2 program is devoted in large part to the loan of computers and computer software, as well as traditional library books," the brief says. "Who knows what the educational tools of the future may be?"

The Clinton administration emphasized in its brief that Congress has amended the Chapter 2/Title VI program over the years.

For example, the program formerly allowed school districts to purchase slide and filmstrip projectors for themselves or to lend to private schools. Today, the program is focused on computer hardware and software.

The administration says that in the 1997-98 school year, some $16.4 million was allocated under Title VI for programs serving students in private schools. Of that amount, $12.5 million went for instructional materials.

In Louisiana, more than $500,000 in Title VI money went for instructional materials in private schools. The figures do not distinguish between religious and secular private schools participating in the program.

The administration's brief also emphasizes that in February, the federal Education Department issued new guidance on Title VI for states and districts. The guidelines explain that districts "should implement safeguards and procedures to ensure that Title VI funds are used properly for private school children."

A district should make sure that Title VI materials are used only for "secular, neutral, and nonideological purposes," the guidance says.

The administration also contends that the high court need not overrule its decisions in Meek and Wolman in order to uphold the Title VI aid in religious schools. But if the court agrees that the two precedents categorically prohibit the loan of instructional equipment and materials to religious schools, those rulings should be re-examined, the brief argues.

Mr. Boothby, the lawyer for the group of Jefferson Parish taxpayers, said he was not surprised the court took the case once the Clinton administration urged it to do so. He worries that a ruling authorizing Title VI aid would leave few limits on other types of public aid to religious schools.

''Why not desks, blackboards, and copiers?" his brief to the high court says. "Where would the line be drawn?"

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Pages 1, 30-31

Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as High Court To Hear Case On Title VI
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