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
"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
"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.