Court allows aid for students at religious schools Public funds can pay speech interpreter in Ariz.

June 19, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON JEFF LEEDS, A CONTRIBUTING WRITER IN THE WASHINGTON BUREAU, PROVIDED MATERIAL FOR THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, splitting 5-3, ruled that students at deeply religious schools are allowed by the Constitution to get some government benefits -- even if it means that public funds are used to convey one faith's beliefs.

By significantly relaxing the ban that has existed on using government-paid staff members to help students at many parochial schools, the court appeared to be moving further to allow closer ties between government and religion.

Coupled with recent actions allowing religious groups to meet at public schools to discuss their faith and allowing students to lead prayers at public school graduations, the new action signaled the court's widening tolerance for religion as a facet of public life.

The specific decision yesterday permits states, if they wish, to pay a public employee to act as a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student at a Roman Catholic high school.

Before the ruling, the court had never allowed a government aide to be used as part of the teaching process at a parochial school that makes religion a part of everything the school does -- from chapel to mathematics.

At such a school, an interpreter would translate all spoken material -- including prayers at mandatory worship services, and prayers at assemblies or before games.

The majority, in an opinion written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, said the use of a state-paid interpreter helps the child, not the school. That serves merely to reinforce the parents' choice of a religious education, and the interpreter "will neither add to nor subtract from that environment," he said.

Nothing in the case "suggests that a sign-language interpreter would do more than accurately interpret whatever material is presented to the class as a whole," the court said.

This type of aid, the majority declared, was a neutral kind of benefit, available to deaf students at all types of schools, and did not involve an embrace of religion for its own sake.

The case, from Arizona, had been watched as a possible opportunity for the court to redefine its basic views on when government aid to religion is unconstitutional. But it ruled on the case without reopening that fundamental issue.

Even so, the court went further than it had gone in prior cases on the use of state-paid aides at strongly religious schools. The court previously had banned states from paying teachers, special education instructors, fast-track educational advisers or counselors at parochial schools.

But yesterday the court said those rulings only involved direct financial aid to a parochial school, saving those schools some money of their own, and that's why the payments were invalid.

An interpreter, by contrast, gets paid by the state and helps the individual student, and none of the money for that service ever reaches the school, the majority stressed.

The decision may be only a temporary victory for the family involved in the case. A Tucson youth and his parents are seeking $28,000 for the money they spent for an interpreter when the youth was at Salpointe Catholic High School; he has since graduated. They paid for that service themselves because school district lawyers said it would be unconstitutional for the government to provide the interpreter.

The case of the youth, James Zobrest, and his parents, now goes back to state courts, where it appears the reimbursement may be denied under Arizona's constitution and, possibly, under federal law on educational aid for the handicapped.

The fact that the Supreme Court found nothing wrong with the state-paid interpreter under the U.S. Constitution yesterday did not settle those other aspects of the dispute.

The court has a long-standing tradition of refusing to decide constitutional disputes if it can decide a case on some other basis. That has been done to avoid giving advice on a constitutional dispute.

But the majority said the only issue before it in the Arizona case was the constitutional issue, so the decision had to turn on that. That issue was whether the line that divides government and religion is crossed unconstitutionally if a paid interpreter becomes a translator of dogma in a parochial school.

The dissenters said the court could have based a decision on federal education law, but the majority said that question was "buried in the record" of the case.

The court split 5-3 in upholding the constitutionality of the state-paid interpreter. The ninth justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, refused to vote on that issue because she thought the court should not have reached out to decide that issue at all.

Three other justices agreed with her on that, but they went on to argue that the interpreter should have been banned under the Constitution. "The interpreter's every gesture would be infused with religious significance," the dissenters argued in an opinion by Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

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