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SCOTUS Ruling Feeds Voucher Debate     06/27 06:04

   (AP) -- Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other proponents of school 
voucher programs are praising a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said a Lutheran 
church was wrongly denied a state grant for its preschool playground. But 
opponents say the ruling is far from an endorsement of the use of public money 
for religious schools.

   The court, by a 7-2 vote, sided with Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, 
Missouri, which had sought a state grant to put a soft surface on its preschool 
playground.

   "We should all celebrate the fact that programs designed to help students 
will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on 
religious affiliation," DeVos said after the justices ruled Monday that 
Missouri violated the First Amendment in denying the grant.

   The Columbia, Missouri, church had sought the grant under a state program 
that reimburses nonprofit organizations that install playground surfaces made 
from recycled tires. The Department of Natural Resources rejected the 
application because the state constitution prohibits the use of public money 
"in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion."

   The church's challenge was watched by both sides of the debate over whether 
states can let parents choose to send their children to religious schools 
through publicly funded programs.

   Teachers unions, which oppose vouchers as diverting money from public 
schools, said the narrow ruling dealt a setback to voucher proponents by 
leaving intact the state's constitutional provision that prohibits state 
funding of religious actions.

   American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten pointed to a 
footnote by Chief Justice John Roberts that said the court did not address 
"religious uses of funding."

   "The Supreme Court's Trinity decision cannot be read as opening the door for 
states to promote religion or expand vouchers," Weingarten said.

   But the pro-school choice Center for Education Reform said that even without 
reviewing the constitutionality of Missouri's prohibition on the use of state 
funds at religious schools, the justices had bolstered the choice movement by 
condemning the denial of a public benefit to an otherwise eligible recipient 
solely on the basis of its religious identity.

   The Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America said the ruling could 
provide support for the argument that it would be discriminatory to not allow 
publicly funded tuition vouchers to be used for schooling at a religious 
institution.

   "That puts somewhat of an onus on the state to make sure that if we're going 
to have a program and we're saying that it's open to everyone, it's intended to 
serve all the kids in our state, then it should be a program ... that includes 
kids that go to private and religious schools," said the group's Washington 
director, Rabbi Abba Cohen.

   Richard Katskee, the legal director at the organization Americans United for 
Separation of Church and State, said that while the ruling does not strike down 
existing constitutional provisions against governments funding religion, "it 
probably will encourage more legal challenges over those provisions."

   ___

   Thompson reported from Buffalo, New York. Associated Press writer Kantele 
Franko in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.


(KA)

 
 
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