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CLC brief supports inclusion of religious schools in Wis.

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission has joined in a brief supporting the inclusion of religious schools in an educational choice program when other private schools are participants.

In a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the brief calls for the justices to uphold an educational choice program in Milwaukee which was amended to include private, religious schools.

Initiated in 1990, the original Milwaukee Parental Choice Program permitted parents to use public money to pay for their children’s tuition only at non-religious, private schools. Last year, Gov. Tommy Thompson proposed inclusion of religious schools in the program, and the state legislature approved it in June.

People for the American Way, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, parents of public school students and members of the clergy filed suit, charging the inclusion of religious schools is an establishment of religion. A county circuit court granted an injunction, blocking the expansion of the program.

The Christian Legal Society brief, signed onto by the CLC and National Association of Evangelicals, argues the inclusion of religious schools would not breach church-state separation, while the exclusion of religious schools would infringe on the free exercise of religion.

“This case is not about tuition tax credits and vouchers,” said Richard Land, the CLC’s president. “It is about religious freedom and government discrimination against religion.

“This case does not say that the government must or should offer vouchers to parents who choose alternative schools for their children. It does say that if the government chooses to offer such vouchers, it must not and cannot discriminate against religious schools as opposed to
other private schools.”

Neither the U.S. Constitution nor Wisconsin Constitution requires the “discriminatory denial of tuition benefits to parents who choose religious education,” the CLS/NAE/CLC brief says.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that programs such as this one, which provide benefits to citizens on a religion-neutral basis for use at a wide range of schools and which create no incentive to choose religious schools over other kinds, do not violate the First Amendment’s
Establishment Clause,” the brief says.

“The parents are the payee of the check; they direct where it will be mailed and endorse it to the school; in short, the decision where to use the money is theirs … .”

The inclusion of religious schools in the program “creates no incentive for parents to choose religious education and therefore comports with anti-establishment principles,” the brief argues. The exclusion of such schools “would amount to impermissible government interference in the religious lives of the people,” says the brief,
which was filed Jan. 16.

“It is beyond doubt that for a state to withhold benefits solely because of a citizen’s religious status or activity imposes an unconstitutional burden on the free exercise of religion, just as much as does affirmative prohibition or regulation of the activity.”

The Baptist Joint Committee is monitoring the case but has not filed a brief, a BJC spokesman said. Staff members in the BJC’s counsel office were not available for comment.

State aid provided to the Milwaukee public schools for the 1995-96 school year is $3.667 per student. If the amended choice program had been implemented, participating private schools would have received up to that amount for each student who was in the program for the entire

During the spring semester of the 1994-95 school year, 768 students attended private schools in Milwaukee under the original educational choice program. At the time the lower court blocked implementation of the law, more than 4,500 students had been accepted to attend private schools under the expanded parental choice program.

Of the 122 private schools which would have been eligible to participate this year in the amended program, 89 are religious.

Under the legislation amending the program, students at sectarian schools may opt out of religious activities with the consent of their parents.
The name of the case is Thompson v. Jackson.