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Reform Jewish Movement Calls Supreme Court Ruling A Setback, Not A 'Death-Blow' For Religious Liberty

Pelavin: . . . the Court recognizes, as it must, that taxpayer funded instruction in parochial schools must be the rare exception rather than the rule.

WASHINGTON, June 23, 1997 - The Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1,800 Reform rabbis throughout North America, today criticized a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling which overturned an earlier decision (Aguilar v. Felton, 1985) proscribing public school teachers from providing services within parochial schools.

Mark J. Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement in response to today's decision in Agostini v. Felton:

Today, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court, in a narrow holding, finds that there are circumstances under which public school teachers may constitutionally be allowed to deliver special instructional services within parochial schools.

Although the ruling is a setback for those who believe, as we do, that taxpayer funds should not be used to provide instruction in parochial schools, it is also noteworthy for what it does not say. Most notably, the majority opinion does not deliver a "death-blow," which critics have prophesied for a decade, to the Lemon test, the tripartite standard the Court has followed for a generation in analyzing establishment clause cases. As Justice O'Connor notes in her majority opinion, "the general principles [the Court uses] to evaluate whether government aid violates the Establishment Clause have not changed since [the earlier case] was decided."

Further, it would appear from today's ruling that the Court recognizes, as it must, that tax- payer funded instruction in parochial schools must be the rare exception rather than the rule and will only be permitted under unusual circumstances. Justice O'Connor, for example, writes that the decision is "intimately tied to the context in which it arose," and is quite explicit about the Court's view that what it found most troubling in Aguilar was the rigidity of the earlier standard.

We continue to believe that programs like the one upheld today are dangerous, and present a real threat to religious liberty by allowing public dollars to flow to parochial schools. The Establishment Clause and the prohibition of excessive governmental entanglement, in particular, exist to protect religion from the corrupting influence of government. We will continue, therefore, to play a leadership role in combating efforts to lower the wall of separation between church and state, a wall which was done so much to protect religion in the United States.

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The Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis joined an amicus brief on behalf of the respondents in Agostini v. Felton.


The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1800 Reform rabbis in more than 850 congregations throughout North America.





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