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Federal Court Bars Mass. Ballot Question On Parochial School Aid.

A federal court in Boston has ruled that government officials in Massachusetts cannot be forced to allow a vote on removing a provision of the state constitution that bars taxpayer aid to religious schools.

U.S. District Judge George O'Toole last month rejected a lawsuit brought by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative Catholic legal advocacy group. The judge agreed with Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly, who had earlier ruled that putting the question on the ballot would violate another provision of the state constitution that bans ballot initiatives relating to "religion, religious practices or religious institutions."

The Massachusetts Constitution contains strong language barring the diversion of tax money to religious institutions, including schools. Article 46, Section 2 provides that "no grant, appropriation or use of public money or property or loan of public credit shall be made or authorized by the commonwealth ... for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any school or institution of learning ... wherein any denominational doctrine is inculcated.... "

Proponents of vouchers and other forms of taxpayer aid to parochial schools have been trying for years to get rid of the provision. The last time they succeeded in getting the question on the ballot, in 1986, Massachusetts residents voted overwhelmingly to keep it -- 70 percent to 30 percent.

This year, Attorney General Reilly ruled that the question could not even go on the ballot because it would violate the state constitution. That action was challenged in court by pro-voucher groups, who argued that the provisions were anti-Catholic and squelched religious freedom.

Judge O'Toole disagreed. "While a state may not bar debate about controversial issues, it may limit the use of a particular form of lawmaking to specified issues," he wrote in the Boyette v. Galvin decision.

Pro-voucher legislators will not give up, however. Despite O'Toole's ruling, leaders in the Massachusetts House of Representatives insisted on placing the issue of parochial school aid on the agenda during a "constitutional convention" -- a meeting on proposed constitutional revisions that must take place in both chambers of the legislature every few years.

Some lawmakers cried foul after House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a Democrat, insisted that the matter be on the agenda. "This question is something that was going to die," Rep. James Marzilli (D-Arlington) told the Boston Globe. "The speaker has chosen to put this amendment on life support."

To qualify for a spot on the 2002 ballot, 50 percent of the legislators in both chambers would have to approve the ballot measure. The issue would then go to the voters.

Groups that support public schools and church-state separation filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Boyette case. Joining on the brief were the American Jewish Congress, Americans United, the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts, Citizens for Participation in Political Action, Citizens for the Public Schools, the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
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Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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