Religious neutrality beats hostility again
Last July, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the federal AmeriCorps program was unconstitutionally establishing religion by funding teachers at Roman Catholic schools along with those in public schools. The line between religious and secular tasks "has become completely blurred," she lamented.
Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously reversed Kessler's opinion, drawing heavily on the Supreme Court's 2002 decision allowing school vouchers to be used at religious schools.
"When a government program is neutral toward religion and 'provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice,' the Establishment Clause is not violated," Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote, quoting from the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris voucher decision.
In bringing the suit, the American Jewish Congress (AJC) focused on the program's allowing teachers to teach religion courses outside the program. Where Kessler sees blurriness, Randolph sees clarity.
"Individual participants who elect to teach religion in addition to secular subjects do so only as a result of 'their own genuine and independent private choice,'" he note. "The AmeriCorps program creates no incentives for participants to teach religion; they may count only the time they spend engaged in non-religious activities toward their service hours requirement. And if they do teach religious subjects, they are prohibited from wearing the AmeriCorps logo when they are doing so."
AJC general counsel Marc Stern is still sore. "One minute they are teaching religion and those kids ...1
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