Supreme Court Upholds Publicly Funded Equipment For Private Religious Schools

Americans United Criticizes Mitchell V. Helms Ruling For Taking 'Sledgehammer' To Church-State Wall

A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court voted today to permit public funds to go to private religious schools to pay for computers and other materials. Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticized the Mitchell v. Helms ruling as a major setback in defense of religious liberty.

"The Supreme Court certainly took a sledgehammer to the wall of separation between church and state today," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Thanks to this misguided decision, taxpayers will now be forced to pay for an endless parade of computers and other expensive equipment for religious schools.

"This is the first time in Supreme Court history that the justices have allowed a resource to be given to parochial schools that can readily be diverted to religious purposes," Lynn added. "At public expense, religious schools can now have students surf the Internet to read the Bible in religion classes, learn theology from Jerry Falwell or download crucifixes as screen savers."

Today, a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court voted to allow the religious school aid. However, only four justices, representing a plurality of the court, endorsed the sweeping opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer voted with the majority, but filed a separate concurring opinion that refused to endorse Thomas' "expansive" approach.

"Though the opinion is disappointing, the silver lining is that this decision gives no aid or comfort to voucher supporters," Lynn said. "It deals exclusively with materials on loan, not direct cash subsidies for religious education. And most importantly, a court majority rejected the sweeping public funding of religious schools argument presented by Clarence Thomas."

The Helms case was originally filed in 1985 by several public school parents in suburban New Orleans. It challenged a variety of federal programs designed to aid private religious education, including a program called "Chapter Two" that provides computers, software, books and audio-visual equipment.

Chapter Two was created as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Now known as Title VI, the measure allocates approximately $16 million annually to private schools, most of which are religious.

"Regrettably, we can now expect religious schools to clamor for an ever increasing number of services paid for with tax dollars," Lynn concluded. "The arrangement approved today will also free up their private resources to promote even more of their religious mission, which is, after all, the central purpose for these schools."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.