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Court opens parochial schools to public school teachers

WASHINGTON (BP)–In 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court declared June 23 that the Consitution allows public school teachers to conduct remedial and supplemental classes to needy children in parochial schools.
The decision in Agostini v. Felton, which will allow publicly funded teachers to come onto religous school grounds to teach secular subjects to low-income, at-risk students, is a reversal from an earlier court decision 12 years ago.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the court was abandoning the premise of its 1985 decision, Aguilar v. Felton.
In writing for the majority, the June 24 New York Times reported Justice O’Connor said, “We no longer presume that public employees will inculcate religion simply because they happen to be in a sectarian environment.”
The court decision was prompted by an appeal of the Aguilar v. Felton case by the New York City school board, joined by the U.S. Department of Education. The 1985 case held there had been “an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state,” The Times said. In an attempt to continue providing federally mandated remedial education in reading and math to all students in New York City after the 1985 decision, the city’s public school system spent $100 miilion in federal education aid to lease vans to park on public streets adjacent to the parochial schools to serve as mobile classrooms, the newspaper said.
Dissenting from the majority, Justice David H. Souter said the ruling would in effect “authorize direct state aid to religious institutions on an unparalleled scale.”
The Center for Law and Religious Freedom, a national association of Christian attorneys and law students, applauded the decision for its rejection of the idea that religious participation in public life creates a “symbolic union” between church and state.
Yet CLS director Steven McFarland said the decision did not go far enough: “Today’s decison is the right result, but it leaves the nation without any bright-line test. So public officials, school boards, religious schools and concerned citizens must still grope for guidance in this legal minefield.”
McFarland called for the court to adopt a neutrality test so as to insure religious participation in government aid programs is allocated on “neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion.”
An official with Americans United for Separation of Church and State saw the decision as a “serious blow” to church-state separation.
“The ruling today is a disappointment, but it would be wrong to read it as a blanket approval for government aid to religious schools,” said Barry W. Lynn, the organization’s director. “The court conceded that church-state safeguards are still essential.”

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  • Dwayne Hastings