Supreme Court agrees to hear suit over church-state relations

La. case may provide new guidance on public aid to religious institutions

June 15, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Setting the stage for a major constitutional battle over government aid to religion, the Supreme Court said yesterday that it will review a program that supplies taxpayer-financed computers, software and library books to parochial schools.

At issue is a federal program, dating to 1981, that provides educational materials on loan, free of charge, to more than 1 million parochial students a year. The same items are available free to all public school students, too, under a nationwide program to promote "innovative" education.

The ruling could provide broad new guidance on the justices' willingness to permit public aid not only to religious schools, but also to religious institutions in general, by relaxing the Constitution's mandate that religion and government be separate. The court's decision, in a Louisiana case, is due sometime next year.

Effect on school vouchers

Some observers think the coming ruling will affect the constitutionality of school voucher programs, a controversial issue that has divided lower courts. In recent years, the court has gradually lowered the barriers to public assistance to religion. The Louisiana case may therefore lead the court to undo several of its prior rulings that rejected such aid.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that opposes all forms of public aid to religion, said the Louisiana case "is likely to be the most important church-state lawsuit to come before the Supreme Court in over two decades."

Jay Alan Sekulow, general counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy group that favors some forms of public aid to religion, including parochial schools, suggested that "the court is still struggling" with its views on such aid. But, he said, "I'm optimistic there's going to be a move toward accommodation of religion" in the Louisiana case.

Maryland case rejected

Even as the justices added that case to their docket, they refused to hear a plea for help from a Maryland church-affiliated college that is seeking funding from the state of Maryland -- Columbia Union College, in Takoma Park. It is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Since 1992, the Maryland Higher Education Commission has refused to provide financial aid to Columbia Union, on the premise that its program is so dominated by religion that any public money would support religion.

The money at issue is available under the state's "Joseph Sellinger Program" -- a system of aid to higher education, both public and private, that was begun in 1971 and is named for the late president of Baltimore's Loyola College, the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, a Roman Catholic priest. Most recently, Columbia Union was rebuffed on a request for $806,079 in Sellinger funds.

Next fall, the Higher Education Commission will provide $36.6 million in Sellinger money to 15 colleges, including three Catholic institutions: Loyola, Mount St. Mary's College and the College of Notre Dame. Those three schools will receive 23 percent of the total grants.

In October, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to provide direct financial grants to colleges that are "pervasively sectarian." But it sent the case back to a District Court judge for a trial on whether Columbia Union fits that category. The college wanted the Supreme Court to spare it that trial and to rule promptly that it was entitled to the aid.

After the justices rejected the appeal without comment, Columbia Union's president, Charles Scriven, said: "We will contest discrimination against Columbia Union College as long as the state sponsors it."

Pace J. McConkle, an assistant attorney general who is counsel to the state Higher Education Commission, said: "We are prepared to go to trial to argue that Columbia Union is a pervasively sectarian institution. So, as far as giving them state aid, our hands are tied" by prior court rulings.

Though the college failed to gain Supreme Court review, it can try again later, its president pointed out. After the trial, the college may pursue another appeal if it again loses access to state funding.

One justice, Clarence Thomas, said yesterday that the court should have heard the college's appeal now and cast aside the ban on aid to pervasively sectarian colleges.

That bans dates to a 1976 ruling by the Supreme Court in a test of the constitutionality of Maryland's program of aiding higher education. The court upheld that program in 1976, but it laid down the constitutional formula for barring aid to colleges dominated by their faith practices.

Sun staff writers Kate Shatzkin and Michael Hill contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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