A Parish Offering

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The Jefferson Parish, La., school district has been lending materials to religious schools for decades.

Fourteen years ago, two middle-class suburban mothers began asking if it was right that public school children had to start an hour early so school buses would be available to transport students to private and parochial schools.

"They had door-to-door transportation," Mary "Neva" Helms, recalls of the free bus service provided at the time by the Jefferson Parish, La., school district to private school children in this large suburban area outside New Orleans.

Helms and her friend Marie Schneider, who had met at PTA meetings and other public school functions, began researching the issue and were surprised by the various forms of state and federal aid that benefited private and parochial schools in Louisiana.

Besides bus transportation, there were salary supplements for cafeteria workers in nonpublic schools. There was a state program that assigned special education teachers to those schools. There were free textbooks, overhead projectors, copier paper, and other materials.

And under a federal program that originated in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, private and parochial schools could request the loan of computers, software, and library books from the local school district.

Given that most nonpublic schools in Jefferson Parish are religiously affiliated, Helms and Schneider couldn't believe that they were getting so much government aid. The women wondered: Doesn't the U.S. Constitution prohibit such tangible government support for religious schools?

"We got infuriated," Helms says. "Programs were getting cut in the public schools, yet private schools were getting line-item appropriations in the state budget."

Helms and Schneider sued the Jefferson Parish school system, the state, and the federal government. Nearly a decade and a half later, after a slow journey through the lower federal courts, a central issue in their lawsuit is about to come before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court this term will decide the constitutionality of the federal aid program currently known as Title VI. The program is a block grant to the states to pay for instructional equipment and materials aimed at school improvement. Since the program's inception, Congress has required that the aid serve eligible children regardless of whether they attend public or private schools, or religious or secular private schools.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans, struck down the Title VI program last year as it was applied in Jefferson Parish. The court said the provision of instructional materials—other than secular textbooks—violated the First Amendment's prohibition against a government establishment of religion. The loan of computers, software, and library books to religious schools violated well- settled Supreme Court rulings from the 1970s, the appeals court said.

The Clinton administration and a group of Roman Catholic school parents from Jefferson Parish, who intervened in the case years ago to fight for their interests, appealed to the high court, which granted review of the case of Mitchell v. Helms last spring. It will hear arguments Dec. 1.

The Catholic school parents argue that they are already paying twice for education—first, with public school taxes and second, with private school tuition. They are entitled to some government benefits, they believe.

"Families of children who attend nonpublic schools pay taxes, just like their public school counterparts," says a brief on behalf of Catholic school parents in Jefferson Parish.

Guy Mitchell, a Jefferson Parish car salesman and the father of four Catholic school children, puts the argument in simpler terms.

"This program is for the children," says Mitchell, the nominal leader of a group of Catholic school parents who intervened in the lawsuit. "They are the ones who are going to benefit."

Jan Mitchell, his wife, acknowledges that private school parents have made the choice to pay tuition, but says that doesn't mean they shouldn't benefit from the taxes they pay.

"I believe we need to defend the things our government has chosen to provide for all children," says Mitchell, who has been a teacher in both Catholic and public schools.

The Mitchells are among four Catholic families who have essentially been drafted to represent the interests of children in parochial schools. The nation's Catholic bishops are helping to pay for their intervention in the case, says Mark E. Chopko, the general counsel of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the bishops' public-policy arm.

The stakes are high. Some legal experts believe that if the Supreme Court sides with the Catholic school parents in this case, its ruling will pave the way for upholding school voucher programs that include religious schools.

But even setting aside the hot debate over vouchers, the question of providing computers and other instructional support to children in religious schools has new relevance. The Clinton administration is gung-ho about connecting students to the Internet, regardless of where they attend school. While the administration stands with teachers' unions and other groups in opposing vouchers, it argues that providing computers and other new instructional tools to children in religious schools does not violate the Constitution.

"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 administration argues in a Supreme Court brief.

In Louisiana, aid to students in religious schools is a long-standing tradition. In the 1930s, under the state's populist governor, Huey P. Long, Louisiana began its practice of providing free textbooks to children in both public and nonpublic schools.

"Long was trying to put together a coalition of Protestants and Catholics," says Lawrence N. Powell, a professor of history at Tulane University in New Orleans. While northern Louisiana is mostly Protestant, the state's southern parishes are heavily Catholic.

The state's provision of free textbooks for parochial school children was challenged in a 1930 U.S. Supreme Court case known as Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education. The court unanimously said the program served a public interest and did not unconstitutionally benefit religious schools.

Beginning in the 1960s, Roman Catholic leaders in the state successfully lobbied for such forms of aid as salary supplements for cafeteria workers in religious schools and a state program that has provided materials such as copier paper, pencils, and other items.

Jefferson Parish stretches 120 miles from Lake Pontchartrain in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. It has two distinct areas. The East Bank includes the New Orleans airport and such middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs as Kenner and Metairie. The West Bank, which is across the Mississippi from New Orleans and the rest of Jefferson Parish, is somewhat grittier, with oil facilities and modest residential communities.

The parish— as Louisiana calls its counties—enrolled just over 55,000 public school students last year, making it third largest in the state behind New Orleans and East Baton Rouge Parish. But another 27,000 children attended private schools recognized by the state—nearly one-third of school-age children in the district. The national proportion is 10 percent, and the Louisiana statewide figure is about 15 percent.

Nearly 20,000 children are enrolled in 35 Catholic schools in Jefferson Parish, according to state figures.

The first several of Marie Schneider's seven children also attended Catholic schools, but she eventually enrolled her children in public schools.

"As the older ones started college, it got harder to pay tuition, so it was somewhat for financial reasons, and somewhat because of disenchantment," says Schneider, 70, a practicing Catholic whose brother is a priest. "I fell in love with the public schools. What I found in public schools that I did not find in parochial schools was a genuine attempt to educate all children. There was no selectivity or elitism."

Neva Helms, 57, is a Baptist and had two children attend public schools, including her daughter Amy, who was also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Helms has been concerned over the years that the lawsuit might mean she would be "tarred as anti-Catholic," she says. But the participation of her friend helps counter that.

After researching the various forms of aid to religious schools, the two mothers enlisted the support of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based advocacy organization. That group, which is no longer involved in the case, hooked them up with their longtime lawyer, Lee Boothby.

The plaintiffs argue that Louisiana essentially supports two separate school systems, one public and one private. Catholic school leaders, they contend, have had extraordinary clout to establish transportation services to their liking and get instructional equipment and supplies for their use with little or no oversight from public school authorities.

On transportation, the suit says, private school families received free bus service to the schools of their choice in Jefferson, while public school families got free service only to their neighborhood schools. Soon after the lawsuit was filed, the school district and the local private schools agreed to end that system and set up attendance zones for the transportation of private school pupils.

The plaintiffs argue that Louisiana essentially supports two separate school systems, one public and one private.

As for the federal Title VI program, which was known as Chapter 2 at the time the suit was filed, Catholic schools ordered library books with little oversight from public school officials, the suit says. Only once did public school officials recall Chapter 2 books from religious school shelves because they were found to be religious.

Eventually, Jefferson Parish school officials began to check more closely the titles of library books ordered by the religious schools, according to court documents. The public school authorities once rejected The Saints Go Marching In, although that book turned out to be about the New Orleans professional football team.

Boothby argues that public school monitoring and safeguards for the federal aid have been minimal and ineffective. Even after the lawsuit was filed, he says, Catholic schools in Jefferson Parish ordered and received such books as A Child's Book of Prayers; Patrick, Saint of Ireland;and We Celebrate Easter.

"In many cases, ... the parochial schools relied entirely on Chapter 2 funds to furnish their libraries," Boothby argues in his Supreme Court brief. "This would seem the very definition of supplanting, rather than supplementing, a core school program."

In 1985, the year the lawsuit was filed, about $207,000 was allocated under Chapter 2 for 41 private schools in Jefferson Parish. Another $650,000 was allocated under the state program for free textbooks and supplies. The state program was also struck down by the federal appeals court, but it is not currently before the Supreme Court.

This school year, about $137,000 has been allocated by Jefferson Parish for Title VI in 43 private schools, district officials say. That is out of a total Title VI allocation of about $450,000 for public and private schools in the parish. Of the 43 participating schools, 31 are Catholic; eight are other religious schools such as Lutheran, Baptist, or Christian; and four are secular private schools.

Across the Mississippi from New Orleans, just across the street from a levee meant to prevent flooding of the mighty river, lies a huge warehouse that was once operated by the Continental Can Co. It is now the administration annex for the Jefferson Parish school district.

The district has gradually turned parts of the warehouse into offices for its supervisory ranks. But the bulk of the facility is still used to store old school desks, auditorium chairs, outmoded overhead projectors, and a few discarded lunchroom salad bars.

Two district officials there, Joel Phillips and Cheryl A. Landry, are responsible for oversight of federal and state aid to nonpublic schools in Jefferson Parish. Neither was in the position when the suit was filed in 1985 or when it was tried in 1990, but they say practices have changed a lot since then.

"I think the people involved now [in public and private schools] are one generation removed from the past practices," says Phillips, a director of instructional-support services.

Even so, the district still appears to have a comfortable relationship with the local Catholic schools, which is pretty much the norm in this part of the state. Catholic school administrators from New Orleans have served on the state board of education, and it is not uncommon for public school teachers and administrators to send their own children to parochial schools.

Landry is the compliance coordinator, and she handles requests from private schools for instructional materials. Most such requests these days are for library books, she says, although she gets some for computers and educational software.

In contrast to past practice, when public school authorities essentially tried to judge books by their titles, Landry requires the private schools to submit a catalog description for each library book they request. If there is any hint that the book is religious in nature, or even contains references to religion, it is rejected, she says.

"We don't take the chance," Landry says. "We eliminate it rather than stretch it."

Thus, she recently turned down one school's request under Title VI for "The Natural Palette: The Hudson River Artists and the Land," an educational package about artists and writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Edwin Church.

The attached catalog page says the kit "presents early American landscape art in its original context of 19th- century science, philosophy, literature, and spirituality." Landry has circled the last word and written "not in compliance."

Besides reviewing book and equipment requests, Landry periodically visits participating private schools to check on how instructional equipment and supplies are being used. She visits each school every two to three years.

Helms and Schneider say such oversight is inadequate. Besides the lengthy time between visits, the private schools are given weeks of warning, they contend.

Phillips says their predecessors in the school district "established this compliance process after sitting through hours and hours of depositions" in the lawsuit. "We take it very seriously," she adds. "But we cannot be the FBI."

Phillips and Landry point out that private schools must sign an "assurance form" that Title VI materials and equipment "will only be used for secular, neutral, and nonideological purposes."

"The assurance pages are very specific," Landry says.

Officials of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, which includes Jefferson Parish, declined to comment on the case. But Chopko of the U.S. Catholic Conference says the case "asks the Supreme Court to abandon the presumption that religious school teachers can't be trusted to uphold the law."

"Every federal program relies on the promise of the participants to uphold the law," he adds. "No federal program could operate without such assurances."

Archdiocesan officials in New Orleans did arrange for a reporter to visit a Catholic school in Jefferson Parish, primarily for the purpose of taking photographs of the Title VI program in action. They asked that children and the school not be identified.

At the K-8 school made available for the visit, most Title VI money has gone for library books. The school has a Title VI allocation this year of about $2,900.

At this school's library, dozens of books bear small Title VI stickers indicating they were provided with federal funds. One computer in the library also is on loan under Title VI. The computer is linked to the Internet. Under a picture of Jesus on the library wall, a 5th grade boy searches the Yahooligans children's Web site for information about bees.

Back when the lawsuit was filed, school use of the Internet was not an issue. But, nowadays, some legal experts wonder whether it would be constitutional for religious school students to use federally provided computers or Internet connections to search online for religious content, such as visiting the Vatican World Wide Web site.

Guy Mitchell, who still has two children in Catholic schools in Jefferson Parish, says school administrators could take steps to make sure Internet- connected computers aren't used for religious purposes. Blocking software could be used, he suggests.

"We can put in checks and balances," he says.

Mitchell is still deciding whether his family can afford to go to Washington for the arguments before the Supreme Court. But Neva Helms and Marie Schneider plan to be there.

Schneider keeps busy as a grandmother and great- grandmother, but she has never lost interest in the case.

"Sometimes my husband says, 'Can we talk about something else?'" she says.

Helms has kept a scrapbook of news articles since the lawsuit was filed. She hopes to add one that reports the Supreme Court has struck down the loan of computers and library books to religious schools. She knows that outcome is not guaranteed.

"If we lose, we can live with it," she says. "But [freedom of] religion in this country will have lost out."

Vol. 19, Issue 11, Pages 37-40

Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as A Parish Offering
Web Resources
  • Get a brief synopsis of the Mitchell, Guy, et al. v. Helms, Mary L., et al. case from On the Docket.
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