Reform Jewish Movement Criticizes Supreme Court Decision on Public Aid to Private and Parochial Schools
Saperstein: "Today's decision reveals the deep schism in the court on religion cases but it does not appear to open the door to vouchers or other generalized assistance to parochial schools."
Contact: Raanan Weintraub, (202) 387-2800
WASHINGTON June 28, 2000 — Reacting to today's United States Supreme Court decision in the case of Mitchell v. Helms, in which the Court ruled that federal funds used to lend computers, instructional equipment, and library books to parochial and private schools are constitutional, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:
Today's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Mitchell v. Helms deals a serious blow to both religion and the Constitution. In ruling that the State-through a public school district-can share equipment and instructional materials with private and parochial schools, the Court weakened America's First Freedom: religious liberty. In approving direct government assistance to parochial schools of equipment they acknowledge can be used exclusively for religious instruction, the Supreme Court blasted a hole in the wall separating church and state. While such a breach is always dangerous, the impact may prove to be less than advocates of vouchers and charitable choice would hope for. Only four justices joined the plurality ruling. Two others found this aid of minimum consequence not requiring a constitutional determination-clearly analysis not applicable to vouchers or charitable choice.
This decision will have tremendous impact on public and private schools throughout the country. It may set a new precedent for the approval of religious school vouchers and "charitable choice" aid to church-run social service programs by providing churches and church-run schools new access to the public treasury. But today's decision must be read together with last week's decision in Santa Fe Independence School District in which the Court, in a strong 6-3 decision, struck down school sponsored prayer at high school football games. Today's decision reveals the deep schism on the court in religion cases but it does not appear to open the door to vouchers or other generalized assistance to parochial schools. Our experience as Jews teaches us that lowering the wall of separation between church and state is a grave mistake.
The adage has it that hard cases make bad law. That is certainly true here. The nearly-15-year journey of the case, and the sharply divergent opinions the court issued today, only highlights its complexity. It would be a serious mistake if policy makers were to read this ruling too broadly. There remain, even after this troubling decision, significant constitutional bars to most type of government aid to parochial schools. We are disappointed to see today a brick knocked out of the wall of separation between church and state, but we remain grateful for the protection that wall continues to provide for religious liberty.
Mitchell v. Helms was brought 14 years ago by Louisiana parents who challenged several state and federal programs benefiting parochial schools. They argued that the school district's use of federal funds to lend computers, instructional equipment, and library books to parochial and other private schools in the district was unconstitutional. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this public aid to religious schools violated the First Amendment's prohibition against government establishment of religion in its allocation of public funds for religious purposes. The Supreme Court has now reversed the lower court's ruling.
Note to Editors: Rabbi David Saperstein teaches church/state law at Georgetown University Law Center. He is available for comment.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing its 895 congregations across North America, whose membership includes 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the 1700 rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.