U.S. judge says no to vouchers for religious schools Maine **case is latest in series that may lead to Supreme Court review

August 15, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Small towns in Maine that do not have their own public high schools routinely cover the costs for their children to attend private schools or public schools in neighboring districts.

But three families in Minot, a town of 1,664 people in southwestern Maine, wanted the town to pay their children's tuition at a Roman Catholic school.

This week, in the most recent of several rulings on the use of vouchers for religious schools, a federal judge ruled against them.

"The plaintiffs certainly are free to send their children to a sectarian school. That is a right protected by the Constitution," D. Brock Hornby, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Maine, wrote in his ruling Tuesday. "The law is clear, however, that they do not have the right to require taxpayers to subsidize that choice."

That holds true regardless of whether a school district operates its own public high schools, Hornby added.

The use of vouchers for religious schools has become a monumental church-state issue that could be headed for a Supreme Court review as early as this fall.

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the city of Milwaukee could use public money to subsidize a private religious school education, a decision expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court within the next month.

In addition, there are voucher cases awaiting judgment by state supreme courts in Ohio, Arizona, Vermont and Maine. (The Maine case is separate, but similar, to the Minot case decided this week by Hornby.)

"It's rare for a similar constitutional issue to be moving toward the Supreme Court in as many forums as this simultaneously," said Clint Bolick, litigation director at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public policy law firm based in Washington that is representing parents in several school voucher cases. "As a result, I think the odds are awfully good that the U.S. Supreme Court will be dealing with one of these cases in the next year."

The legal outcome of the voucher controversy could reshape American education.

Among the supporters of vouchers for religious schools are Catholic groups, conservative Christian evangelicals and Orthodox Jewish groups, all of whom operate private religious schools.

The opponents of vouchers include teachers unions, civil liberties groups, church-state separatists and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They maintain that diverting money, and the most motivated students and their families, to private schools of any kind will undermine the public school system. Some groups, including Jews and African-Americans, are divided over the issue.

Pub Date: 8/15/98

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