High court sidesteps church-state rulings

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has decided to sidestep several mines on the church-state battlefield.

In a flurry of action Tuesday, the justices let stand Maine's school voucher program, left intact a ruling striking down New York's attempt to create a special school district for a community of Chassidic Jews, and refused to let Pennsylvania exempt religious publications and Bibles from sales taxes.

While none of the moves set precedents, some legal analysts said that by declining to hear the cases the justices appear to be signaling a reluctance to make sweeping changes affecting the separation of church and state.

"I think it's clear they don't think they're going to be doing a wholesale revision of the Establishment Clause," said Marc Stern, an American Jewish Congress attorney.

For its 1999-2000 term, the court so far has agreed to hear only one major church-state case, which involves the constitutionality of aid to parochial schools. The case stems from a 14-year-old Louisiana dispute over whether computers and other instructional material paid for with taxpayer money can be used by religious schools. The court is expected to clarify what has become a nebulous area of law.

But beyond that, the justices have elected to dodge a number of burning church-state questions in the lower courts.

On the voucher issue, the justices decided for a second year in a row not to enter into the fray. After leaving intact Wisconsin's voucher program in its last term, the court Tuesday upheld a Maine law that subsidizes children attending private, non-religious schools, but bars the state from paying tuition for students at religious schools.

Acting without comment or dissent, the justices rejected an appeal brought by parents of religious-school students who accused the state of violating their rights by withholding the same financial help that is available to students attending non-religious schools.

Maine's voucher program, created in 1981, has consistently excluded religious schools.

The Supreme Court let stand two separate rulings by a U.S. appeals court and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, both of which held that the law does not discriminate against religion. The courts said the program would violate the constitutional separation of church and state if the state paid tuition directly to religious schools.

In a separate action, the justices refused to let New York reinstate a special school district for Kiryas Joel — a village about 45 miles northwest of New York City whose residents are all Satmar Chassidim.

The court, by a 6-3 vote, let stand a ruling by the New York Court of Appeals in May that struck down state legislators' attempts to carve out an autonomous school district for Kiryas Joel so that the community can control the education of its students and the $3 million in state aid it qualifies for each year.

That ruling marked the third time such an attempt was struck down by the courts.

The dispute began in 1985, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barred public school teachers from offering remedial education services in parochial schools. As a result, Kiryas Joel's disabled students began attending public school in a neighboring town, where many were taunted for speaking Yiddish and wearing sidelocks and clothes in a style unique to the Chassidim.

With parents arguing that their children did not learn well in a non-Chassidic setting, New York state enacted a law in 1989 creating a special school district for the Satmars' benefit. The state School Boards Association, however, attacked the district as an illegal accommodation. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed, issuing a ruling in 1994 ordering the dismantling of the district.

State lawmakers have since been attempting to draft new laws to create a school district that can pass constitutional muster.

The ruling by a U.S. court of appeals in May, upheld Tuesday by the Supreme Court, said that the creation of a special district "has the primary effect of advancing one religion over others and constitutes an impermissible religious accommodation."

Orthodox Jewish groups were dismayed that the court decided not to hear the case.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs, said he was disappointed that the court "failed to take on the argument asserted by Kiryas Joel's opponents that a law can be unconstitutional simply because a community of religious believers benefits from it."

"This can't be what the Constitution stands for," he said. "We hope we will find an opportunity to correct and clarify this message very soon."