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Supreme Court Accepts Louisiana Religious School Aid Case; Decision May Set Church-State Landmark

The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted a Louisiana case dealing with tax aid to religious schools, setting the stage for a major showdown on church-state law.

The justices announced June 14 that they will hear Mitchell v. Helms, a case brought 14 years ago by Louisiana parents who challenged several state and federal programs benefiting parochial schools. The focus of the current round of litigation is a federal program providing computers, library books, audiovisual equipment, televisions and other materials to parochial schools.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 17, 1998, that "Title VI" aid to religious schools violates the Constitution.

"The Mitchell case is likely to be the most important church-state lawsuit to come before the Supreme Court in over two decades" said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "This case forces the court to face squarely the question of direct taxpayer aid for religious schools."

Lynn added that the Mitchell decision could set sweeping precedent dealing with issues as diverse as religious school vouchers and "charitable choice" aid to church-run social service programs. As such, it has the potential to be a landmark ruling, either by giving churches and church schools new access to the public treasury or reaffirming existing First Amendment safeguards.

Justice Thomas Supports Church College Aid

For years, the U.S. Supreme Court has barred state aid to "pervasively sectarian" schools and colleges. However, if Justice Clarence Thomas has his way, that policy will be rejected.

Thomas announced his position June 14 when the justices decided not to hear Columbia Union College v. Clarke, a case brought by a Seventh-day Adventist college in Takoma Park, Md. Columbia Union applied for state aid in 1990 and 1995, but the Maryland Higher Education Commission said no public funds may go to colleges that are saturated with religious teaching in all of their activities.

"We should take this opportunity to scrap the `pervasively sectarian' test and reaffirm that the Constitution requires, at a minimum, neutrality not hostility toward religion," Thomas said in a dissenting opinion [emphasis in the original].

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 26, 1998, that direct public aid to a "pervasively sectarian" institution is unconstitutional. With the Supreme Court deciding not to hear the appeal, the lower court decision remains in place.

Istook `Religious Freedom Amendment' Resurrected

The U.S. House of Representatives is gearing up once again to consider an amendment that would effectively remove church-state separation from the Constitution.

According to a May 27 letter to House members from Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) is prepared to reintroduce his so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment."

Pitts, who last year was appointed to serve as a liaison between House Republicans and the Religious Right, sent the letter inviting members to become an "original cosponsor" of the amendment. "It's time to do something about this cultural state of emergency," Pitts said. "It's time to let God back in our classrooms."

In June 1998, the House considered and rejected Istook's amendment. Though the House voted 224-203 in favor of the measure, the effort fell 61 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed.

Americans United and other opponents of the amendment have insisted that it would allow coercive prayer and religious worship in public schools, require government to give tax aid to churches and church schools and permit government to display religious symbols.

`Prayer, Fasting And Humiliation' Resolution Fails In House

A congressional resolution calling on Americans to engage in "prayer, fasting and humiliation before God" failed June 29 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

H.Con. Res.94 was rejected despite a 275-140 vote in favor of it. Under parliamentary rules in use, the measure needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

The non-binding resolution was introduced by Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) and cosponsored by 46 House members including Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Citing the Columbine massacre and various world problems, the Chenoweth proposal said "it is the necessary duty of the people ... to humbly offer up our prayers and needs to Almighty God" and "it is incumbent on all public bodies, as well as private persons, to revere and rely on God Almighty for our dayto-day existence." It called on government officials, business leaders and clergy to observe a "day of solemn prayer, fasting and humiliation before God."

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) spoke against the resolution. "Perhaps it is time for us in Congress to preach a little less and practice a little more" he said. "God doesn't need Congress' help. But may God help us if we ever use religion for our own political ends."

Observers expect the measure to be reintroduced quickly. If considered under normal House rules, it will only need a simple majority to pass.
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Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Previous Article:Philly's Public Schools: Who'll Stop The Rain?

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