- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2000

Computers do many things, but one thing they don't do is establish religion. That, in brief, is one of the findings of a majority of Supreme Court justices who last week ruled, 6-3, to uphold a federal program that lends computers, software and library books to American schools, whether they be public, private or, in the case under consideration, parochial. The ruling which is the sixth consecutive Supreme Court decision to sustain public aid to religious schools has left school-choice advocates heartened and hopeful that they may one day see the legalization of schoolvouchers for religious-school tuition.

The program under review this time, known as Chapter 2, works by distributing federal money to state and local governments for the purchase of educational equipment. The local authorities then loan the equipment to all schools within their boundaries, basing the extent of their loans upon the number of children enrolled in each school. In the case before the court, Mitchell vs. Helms, the question was whether implementing Chapter 2 in a suburb of New Orleans, where 41 out of the 46 private schools are parochial, constituted a government act of religious indoctrination. Quite logically, a majority of justices concluded that it did not. Indeed, if the government were to exclude religiously affiliated schools from receiving Chapter 2 aid, there would be a compelling case to be made alleging religious discrimination.

Writing for a plurality, Justice Clarence Thomas invoked the guiding "principle of neutrality" to uphold federal aid to religious schools. "If the religious, irreligious, and a religious are all alike eligible for governmental aid," Justice Thomas wrote, "no one would conclude that any indoctrination that any recipient conducts has been done at the behest of the government."

In Mitchell vs. Helms, the purpose is both narrowly defined and perfectly profane: computer literacy. But there is potentially a wider application for Justice Thomas's words. With this far-ranging opinion, he has provided a legal rationale for the evenhanded distribution of some form of federal aid for private school vouchers for secular and religious schools alike. As Matthew Berry of the Institute for Justice, a leading advocate for voucher programs, told this newspaper, this latest decision represents "a clear signal" that federal aid is not necessarily unconstitutional when applied to religious schools. Clint Bolick, also of the Institute for Justice, explained it this way to the New York Times: This decision "fits into a growing sense that public education can take place outside of the public schools." He added that it also injects a welcome flexibility into public policy "in terms of aid following students" rather than simply pouring into the public schools, a comfortably graspable way of thinking about an issue that is sure to be found in the spotlight during this election year.

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