Two grandmothers from Louisiana—one Baptist, the other Catholic—are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the government out of parochial schools, even if it means losing free computers for the classroom.
"Throughout history, whenever government has been involved in religion, it is religion that has paid the price," says Marie Schneider.
Schneider and Neva Helms filed their lawsuit 14 years ago in the Jefferson Parish School District of suburban New Orleans. "When Catholic school administrators are willing to remove the crucifix from a classroom to gain a computer paid for with public money, it compromises and secularizes my religion," Schneider says.
Legal analysts on both sides of the issue say the court's ruling, which is expected by summer, could indicate where the court is headed on a variety of taxpayer subsidies for religious schools, including school vouchers.
Lee Boothby, vice president of the Council on Religious Freedom and legal counsel for Schneider and Helms, believes accepting government aid is a slippery slope: "Government should not be in the business of secularization of religious mission."
The question is whether computers are central to a religious school's mission. According to Boothby, "You cannot operate a school today without computers. They're as essential as electricity." He says providing federal aid for computers which are used in the core educational function of a religious school creates entanglement and discriminates in favor of religion—a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.
Michael W. McConnell, professor at the University of Utah College of Law, represents the government and a group of parents defending the aid program. McConnell says computers are no different than textbooks, which the government has provided for more than 30 years.
McConnell argues that private schools, which he believes are at the forefront of improving the nation's education system, should not be cut off from federal resources.
"Providing resources to all schools seems to best fit our nation's history of neutrality," McConnell says.
Gregory Baylor, Associate Director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom, says the Charitable Choice provision in the 1996 welfare reform law is an example of government aid that works without undermining the autonomy of a religious organization.
"It's not necessary for the government to impose draconian restrictions to those who receive aid," Baylor says.
But the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs does not see the aid as neutral. "This case takes us to a level where there's direct aid to the religious schools that's more substantial than the type of aid provided in the past, such as transportation," says Melissa Rogers, general counsel for the committee. "And it's aid highly capable of diversion to sectarian use."
"We are not saying that church and state can't cooperate," Rogers says. "But the things that make our religious entities so robust is they're supported by voluntary contributions rather than compulsory tax funds and that they're free from government control."
The Freedom Forum site has an article on the upcoming case as well as detailed information about Mitchell v. Helms.Past articles by Verla Gillmor include:"We All Want Unity" | Black churches, racial reconciliation take center stage at St. Louis Graham crusade. (Nov. 9, 1999)Chicago Hope | How Christians are transforming public education (Sept. 6, 1999)Curbing Smut Legally | Tough ordinances shut down porn outlets (Feb. 8, 1999)States Pass New Protections for Religious Expression (Jan. 11, 1999)Angels of the Night | A Chicago street ministry reaches out to male prostitutes working the street. (Jan. 11, 1999)Illinois City Bars Worship at Vineyard-owned Facility (Oct. 5, 1998)
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