WASHINGTON (BP)–Reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a church-state case on the final day of its term varied from describing it as “a momentous day in the history of education in America” to calling it “a sledgehammer to the wall of separation.”
The high court ruled by a 6-3 vote in Mitchell v. Helms a federal program as applied in Louisiana was constitutional in its provision of books, computers and other equipment to religious schools. Under the program, materials provided to the schools remain the property of local and state public education agencies. In Louisiana, religious schools were required to commit to using the materials only for nonreligious purposes.
In the court’s June 28 opinion, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the “religious nature of a recipient should not matter to the constitutional analysis, so long as the recipient adequately furthers the government’s secular purpose.
“In short, nothing in the establishment clause requires the exclusion of pervasively sectarian schools from otherwise permissible aid programs, and other doctrines of this court bar it.”
The Christian Legal Society said in a written release the ruling “explicitly recognizes that the high court’s jurisprudence has moved toward a principle of neutrality, whereby government benefits are available to all children without regard to the religious choices of their parents.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the decision appears to say “if the government is going to give assistance to schools that is educationally neutral, such as computers and Internet assistance, that it then cannot turn around and say the only institutions that may not receive this value-neutral assistance are religiously affiliated … that would once again appear to be discrimination against religion, as long as the governmental assistance is not being used to promote religious or sectarian instruction.”
Michael Whitehead, interim president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a church-state law professor, called the decision a “great defeat for those who favor religious discrimination in government programs.”
“The government’s interest is educating its citizenry,” Whitehead said in a written statement. “The purpose and primary effect of computer-aid is not to advance religion. It is to advance education of all citizens, those in public schools and those in private schools.”
Organizations with a strict-separationist view of the relationship between church and state criticized the ruling.
The court “certainly took a sledgehammer to the wall of separation between church and state today,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a written release. “Thanks to this misguided decision, taxpayers will now be forced to pay for an endless parade of computers and other expensive equipment for religious schools.
“This is the first time in Supreme Court history when the justices have allowed a resource to be given to parochial schools that can readily be diverted to religious purposes.”
Melissa Rogers, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, said in a written statement, “The religious schools that are rejoicing over this ruling should remember — any new breach in the wall separating church and state allows traffic to flow both ways. Religion may use this opening to procure government aid, but government regulators also may use it to cross over to the religious side and monitor such aid and perform other government oversight. It is wrong to force taxpayers to advance religion by allowing tax money to flow to religious schools and their sacred missions, and it is counterproductive for religion to receive the support of the state.”
Vouchers and other school-choice proposals may be victors in the ruling, some said.
The Institute for Justice, the leading legal defender of education-choice programs, argued the aid in the Mitchell case may be more difficult constitutionally than vouchers because it is direct.
“With school choice, funds are transmitted to parents who then choose to use them at religious or nonreligious schools,” said Matthew Berry, staff attorney for the institute, in a written release. “Under the court’s reasoning, school choice should present an easier issue.”
Kevin Hasson of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said the opinions of a four-member plurality and two justices in concurrence “clearly [define] First Amendment jurisprudence in a way that unmistakably opens the door to school-choice plans across the country, even where participants are free to attend parochial schools. This is a momentous day in the history of education in America, and a very happy one indeed.”
The ERLC’s Land said, “Say a case came before the court where a state government was offering vouchers or tuition-tax credits that could be used at private schools but not religiously affiliated schools. If such a case were to appear before this present court, it would appear, based on this decision, it would say that the state does not have to offer vouchers or tax credits, but if they choose to do so that they then cannot discriminate against religiously affiliated schools.”