July/August 1999 AU Bulletin

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 day-to-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.

Illinois Approves Private School Tax Credit

The Illinois state legislature has approved a tax credit bill designed to subsidize the cost of tuition at religious and other private schools.

The measure was promptly signed by Gov. George Ryan (R), an enthusiastic supporter of the plan who stood on the State House floor during the final vote to encourage passage.

The law allows a tax credit of up to $500 to parents with students in a religious or other private school. Opponents say the program will primarily benefit religion and is therefore unconstitutional.

Roman Catholic schools in Illinois have been lobbying aggressively for additional public assistance, suggesting that some schools may shut down without public aid. Cardinal Francis George and fellow representatives of the Chicago Archdiocese were present at the bill signing.

Americans United and other civil liberties and education groups are preparing a lawsuit to challenge the religious school subsidy.

N.Y. School Can Suspend Preaching Teacher,
 Says Court

A New York education board acted within the law when it suspended a teacher who insisted on including his personal religious viewpoint as part of his classroom instruction, a federal appeals court has held.

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously April 5 that the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) was right to suspend Dan Marchi, a special education instructor, after he refused to omit religious activities from his lessons.

In 1989, 12 years after starting his career as a special education teacher, Marchi became a born-again Christian and began praying with students, using the Bible in class and displaying religious posters on classroom walls. He repeatedly challenged school officials' orders to cease and desist.

In Marchi v. BOCES, the court ruled that BOCES could limit religious activity in the classroom in the interest of acting within the First Amendment. Attorneys representing Marchi have announced their intention to appeal the ruling.

Utahns Protest Mormon Main Street Rules

The City Council of Salt Lake City, Utah, has approved a plan to close a block of the city's Main Street and sell it to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons).

The Council voted 5-2 April 13 to approve the $8.1 million purchase. The vote broke along religious lines, with Mormon members voting in favor of the transaction.

In addition to raising concerns about the cozy relationship between church and state, many local citizens are uneasy about the new restrictions that will be placed on visitors to the newly designated "private park." According to The Salt Lake Tribune, rules developed by the church allow church security guards to "evict pedestrians who assemble, picket, distribute literature, sunbathe, smoke, carry guns, play music, make speeches or engage in illegal, offensive, indecent, obscene, vulgar, lewd or disorderly speech, dress or conduct."

Making matters even more controversial, city and church attorneys later added provisions allowing the church to distribute Mormon literature, erect Mormon signs and broadcast Mormon music and speeches "without limitation."

When Tribune reporters later asked for records that would detail how the agreement for the sale was reached, both city attorneys and LDS Church lawyers refused.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah announced May 5 that it will be launching a legal challenge to the arrangement.

Canadians Debate God Reference In Constitution

A member of Canada's Parliament sparked a national uproar in June by suggesting that God be deleted from the Canadian Constitution.

The constitution's preamble says, "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God." On June 8 Svend Robinson presented a petition of 1,000 signatures to Parliament that asked for removal of the theological reference.

To a chorus of boos, Robinson rose in the House of Commons to read the petition, which recommends that the preamble assert that Canada was "founded upon principles of intellectual freedom and the rule of law."

Immediate criticism exploded around the nation.

Two days after the controversial floor speech, the much-maligned Robinson expressed regret in a letter to New Democratic Party leader Alexa McDonough. "I deeply regret the pain and difficulty that my decision...has caused," Robinson said.

Monitor 'Dangerous Sects,' 
European Council Advises

The Council of Europe's parliamentary body has recommended creation of a European clearing house to keep tabs on "dangerous sects," a move some see as a pretext in some nations for expanding ongoing campaigns against minority faiths.

Meeting in Strasbourg, France, the council's 286-member Parliamentary Assembly voted unanimously by a show of hands June 22 to call for a "European Observatory" that would gather information on "groups of a religious, esoteric or spiritual nature."

According to the Religion News Service, the information would be made available to the council's 41 member nations as they seek to "ensure that the activities of these groups...are in keeping with the principles of our democratic societies."

The recommendation now goes to the council's Committee of Ministers for further action. The committee is comprised of the foreign ministers of the council's member nations. The council was founded after World War II to promote democracy and human rights in Europe.

A report submitted with the recommendation said the proposal grew out of the rise across Europe in recent years of "sects and new religions." It noted "the number of people joining sects is rising constantly."