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.At issue is a federal entitlement program now called Title VI, created by Congress in 1965, which supplies instructional materials—including computers and software—to both public and private schools. Private schools received about 25-30 percent of the $375 million spent last fiscal year.

"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.

Slippery Slope?

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 ...

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