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High court again refuses to rule on education choice

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court again demonstrated it is not ready to rule on education choice, refusing to review court decisions prohibiting religious schools in Maine from participation in a tuition program.
The high court allowed to stand two lower-court opinions that held it is constitutional to exclude religious schools from a Maine program that includes other private schools. In Maine, some rural school districts do not have high schools but provide tuition for students to attend the schools of their choice elsewhere, either public or nonreligious private ones. The checks are made to the schools. Before 1980, students could also choose religious schools.
In two other church-state cases, the justices:
— Refused to review a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling against the state’s sales tax exemption for Bibles and religious publications, according to The Washington Post.
— Declined to accept the appeal of a lower-court decision rejecting another attempt by New York to establish a school district for the disabled children in a Hasidic Jewish community, The Post reported. The high court ruled as unconstitutional in 1994 the school district in the Kiryas Joel community.
The Oct. 12 announcements followed by only a week the justices’ decision not to review a lower-court opinion upholding an educational choice program in Arizona. The Arizona plan allows a tax credit of up to $500 for a donation to a school tuition organization, which grants scholarships to students attending private schools, including religious ones.
Last November, the high court also declined a challenge to Wisconsin’s school-choice program. That state’s supreme court had upheld a plan that permitted children from low-income Milwaukee families to use vouchers at secular or religious private schools.
The Supreme Court may be waiting for a voucher program such as that in Ohio or Florida to work its way through the judicial system before deciding the constitutionality of education choice.
The Institute for Justice, which argued in one of the Maine cases the exclusion of religious schools is a violation of equal protection under the law, said it was unfortunate the high court did not “correct the obvious constitutional errors” committed by the lower court.
“The establishment clause permits the equal treatment of religious choices of schools under a neutral program like Maine’s,” said Dick Komer, senior litigation attorney for the Institute, in a written release.
“Although we are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court is not yet ready to address school choice, we have no doubt that it will ultimately vindicate the rights of parents to secure high-quality educational opportunities for their children regardless of whether the school they select is religious or not.”
The decision “should not be seen as a rejection of choice or vouchers,” Komer said.”It simply means that the court does not yet consider the issue ripe for review.”
Organizations promoting strict separation between church and state lauded the high court’s rejection of the Maine appeals.
“The constitutional principle which requires separation of church and state in our educational system, which has never been reversed by the court, continues in full force today,” said People for the American Way President Carole Shields in a written release.
“And, as a policy matter, it does not make sense to channel public funds away from the public schools, where 90 percent of our children are educated, to benefit the very few in private schools.”
While public support for education choice has grown in recent years, it remains a controversial issue in America and, to at least some extent, in the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists increasingly have become supportive of school choice. Many Southern Baptists, however, traditionally have opposed vouchers on church-state grounds, and now some oppose them out of concern for the religious school’s autonomy.
In the Wisconsin case, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief with the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod supporting the Milwaukee program. The brief argued the exclusion of religious schools from a voucher program for only secular private schools would constitute discrimination against religion, while inclusion of religious schools would not violate church-state separation.
The Baptist Joint Committee, the SBC’s church-state representative in Washington prior to the 1990s, has long maintained vouchers for religious schools violate the First Amendment’s establishment-of-religion clause.