- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

An appeals court panel yesterday upheld federal funding for a teacher-training program at the University of Notre Dame that places educators in needy Catholic schools.

Taxpayer support of religious schools is constitutional so long as government funds go to “programs of true private choice,” wrote Judge A. Raymond Randolph for the three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The decision reversed a 2004 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler that the Corporation for National and Community Service, parent of the AmeriCorps program, had violated the Constitution’s ban on establishment of religion by awarding tuition vouchers to teachers in Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE).

The American Jewish Congress (AJC) challenged the program because AmeriCorps awarded $4,725 vouchers for education-related expenses of Notre Dame teachers assigned only to Catholic schools.

The AJC also objected to teachers fulfilling their service requirement by teaching religion courses in addition to secular subjects in the parochial schools.

“We believe the Supreme Court’s more recent decisions upholding programs of true private choice, particularly Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), control this case,” the court said.

The 5-4 Zelman ruling upheld a Cleveland school-voucher program against a First Amendment challenge on grounds that parents had a right to use tax-supported vouchers to pay tuition at religious schools as long as they also had the option of nonsectarian schools.

“When a government program is neutral toward religion and ‘provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice,’ the Establishment Clause is not violated,” the appeals court stated, in quoting Zelman.

Notre Dame, which fought the AJC court challenge for two years, welcomed yesterday’s ruling.

“We have long thought that our Alliance for Catholic Education is a model program that fully complies with the First Amendment, and we’re pleased that the appeals court agrees,” said Notre Dame spokesman Matthew V. Storin.

David Eisner, chief executive of the service corporation, also applauded the decision.

“We’re delighted that the court has stepped firmly on the side of needy children in religious schools receiving these critical services,” he said.

Started in 1994, ACE places new Catholic graduates of the university into Catholic schools that are short of funds or Catholic teachers. ACE teachers have been assigned to Catholic schools in 55 cities and 14 states, according to the program’s Web site.

AmeriCorps gives $4,725 vouchers — which can be redeemed at Notre Dame for educational expenses — to ACE teachers who provide at least 1,700 hours of service.

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