Court: Religious school cash OK Boy Scout ruling upsets Jews

WASHINGTON — Orthodox Jewish groups are hailing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it is constitutional for religious schools to use taxpayers' dollars to buy computers and other instructional materials.

Other Jewish groups warn, however, that the use of these materials could be diverted for religious purposes.

In a 6-3 ruling Wednesday, the last day of the court's term, the justices ruled that the government may continue to provide money for religious schools to buy instructional items. However, the material must be secular in content and not advance a religious point of view.

Orthodox Jewish groups, many of whom joined in a court brief in favor of parochial school aid, are applauding the decision.

"To prohibit parochial schools from receiving government support made available generally to all schoolchildren is nothing short of discrimination against religion," said Nathan Diament, public affairs director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs. "The constitution calls upon the state to be neutral toward religion, not hostile towards it."

Diament, who said the ruling puts pressure on those who advocate strict church-state separation, believes the court made a "common-sense, middle-of-the-road" decision.

But other Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, say materials bought with government money, particularly computers, could be diverted for religious purposes.

In the opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court recognized this risk, but concluded that "the evidence of actual diversion and the weakness of the safeguards against actual diversion are not relevant to the constitutional inquiry, whatever relevance they may have under the statute and regulations."

Abba Cohen, counsel for Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox organization, called the decision a strong endorsement of equal participation by private school students in federal education programs.

Many Orthodox schools rely heavily on Title VI or Chapter 2 funding, federal programs designed to aid private religious education.

Whether Wednesday's decision could be used to strengthen the argument for school vouchers is unclear. Vouchers provide government funds for students to attend parochial or private schools.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, considered to be the swing vote on the voucher issue, concurred in the decision, but indicated in a separate opinion her reservations about unrestricted aid to religious schools — and vouchers fall into this category.

The decision is a victory for the Clinton administration, which has proposed connecting every classroom to the Internet, including those in religious schools.

But the decision may create problems for many states, said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress' legal department.

Stern noted that many states have restrictions on state funding for parochial schools, which will now be called into question.

The AJCongress is also dismayed with another Supreme Court ruling handed down Wednesday, which upholds the Boy Scouts of America's policy to bar gay males from serving as scoutmasters.

In a statement, Norman Redlich, chair of both the governing council and the law and social action commission, linked the New Jersey Boy Scout case as one of discrimination that Jewish organizations should oppose.

"That the Scouts — and groups like them — have the right to discriminate does not mean they should exercise it broadly or lightly. Policies that exclude on the basis of a person's status deny citizens access to important elements of the community," Redlich said.

To some, the court's ruling on tax money for religious schools may appear to be sending mixed messages on church-state separation issues, since in a decision last week the court ruled that student-led prayers at high school football games are unconstitutional.

But school prayer and aid to parochial schools are "constitutionally and theoretically different issues," said Agudath Israel's Cohen.

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