School Choice & Charters

Justices Decline Appeal on AmeriCorps’ Role in Religious Schools

By Andrew Trotter — January 17, 2006 3 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to rule on the constitutionality of federal AmeriCorps program grants that are paid to volunteers who teach in religious schools.

It also decided an antitrust case in the heavy-truck industry that has a bearing on school districts’ purchases of school buses.

AmeriCorps awards scholarships to individuals who perform at least 1,700 hours of secular public service in programs sponsored by a wide range of organizations, including more than 1,600 schools, both public and religious. The program also gives sponsoring organizations $400 for each individual who performs public service with the program, to help defray the administrative costs of participation. The money is paid under the National and Community Service Act of 1990.

The American Jewish Congress challenged the participation of religious schools on the grounds that volunteers who go into such schools to teach often blend secular instruction with religious instruction and sometimes lead students in prayer. It contends that those religious activities are an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

The group’s appeal asked the high court to make clear that the government may not fund teachers who teach religion in sectarian elementary and secondary schools and to ensure that direct grants to religious groups are restricted to secular uses.

The Supreme Court on Jan. 9 refused without comment to review a 2005 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. That court upheld payments to the volunteers in the religious schools by the Corporation for National and Community Service, better known as AmeriCorps.

In a brief to the high court in American Jewish Congress v. Corporation for National and Community Service (Case No. 05-282), U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement said, “All that the [AmeriCorps] Education Awards program does is decline to disqualify individuals who have performed the requisite secular work from receiving an award, just because those same individuals also engaged in religious activities on their own initiative. Furthermore, the program prohibits individuals from crediting any time spent engaged in religious activities toward qualifying for [a federal award], which eliminated any potential programmatic incentive to engage in those activities.”

Marc D. Stern, the general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, said in a statement last week that the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case was “a stark reminder of how weak the wall between church and state has become.”

Antitrust Decision

Separately last week, in a case being watched by the school transportation industry, the Supreme Court ruled that a manufacturer of heavy trucks cannot be found liable under a federal antitrust law if it gives different wholesale prices to different dealers who are selling the manufacturer’s trucks through competitive bidding but are not directly competing with one another.

A dealer who sold Volvo trucks alleged that Volvo Trucks North America violated the federal Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, which bars wholesalers from charging different prices to retail outlets that compete with one another.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, had awarded the dealer triple damages from the manufacturer.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services had noted in a friend-of-the-court brief that dealers for school bus manufacturers have long followed the same practice of bidding for contracts and only ordering buses after a contract is won. The group, based in The Plains, Va., argued that the lower-court decision would discourage school bus manufacturers from giving discounts to help their dealers win competitions for sales to districts. (“Justices Hear Case That Could Affect School Bus Market,” Nov. 9, 2005.)

Deputy Solicitor General Thomas G. Hungar had argued for the Bush administration, in support of Volvo, that the law has never applied to dealership arrangements typical for heavy truck and school bus sales.

Writing for a 7-2 majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected the specific examples of wrongdoing presented by the dealer.

In her opinion, she said that the dealer had presented examples of favored pricing that “mixed and matched” unrelated transactions, an invalid basis for claiming an injury from favoritism in pricing.

What’s more, she said, the Robinson-Patman Act was intended to protect consumers who purchase trucks, not necessarily the dealers; in fact, the selective pricing may boost competition among brands, leading to lower prices—a point similar to the argument made by the school bus group.

The case is Volvo Trucks North America Inc. v. Reeder-Simco GMC Inc. (Case No. 04-905).

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