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Supreme Court says tax money can go to religious schools
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that taxpayer money may be used to buy computers and other materials for religious and other private schools.
The 6-3 ruling should speed federal efforts to connect every American classroom to the Internet. The decision also is sure to be cited as a big victory for proponents of using public money for tuition aid to families who send their children to religious
Politically charged legal fights over tuition vouchers are being waged in numerous lower courts.
The central issue in Mitchell v. Helms and school vouchers is whether taxpayer money can be used by private or religious school students.
Details of the 1965 law
Section 2 of the act allows federal money to be used to provide millions of schoolchildren -- regardless of whether they attend public, private or religious schools -- with books, computers and other instructional materials.
That did not sit well with Mary Helms, a parent of a public-school student in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Helms argued that the act violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which says Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
The lawsuit by Helms and other public-school parents in Jefferson Parish stemmed from the fact that Helms had to wake up her daughter early to catch the school bus. That was because the buses also were being used to transport students to a Catholic school.
Helms and other parents learned in 1984 that public funds also were being used to supply Jefferson Parish parochial schools with $18 million worth of textbooks, overhead projectors and other school supplies.
Interestingly, traditional foes of public funding for private schools -- the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association -- were quiet when the law was passed.
Now, both groups argue that the law as it is applied raises fundamental constitutional question because it is impossible to truly determine if the material is being used to advance a particular religious cause.
Lower court rulings and related high court decisions
A federal judge ruled in favor of Helms, siding with the argument that the act runs counter to the First Amendment.
But when the defendants -- Guy Mitchell and other parents of religious school students in Louisiana, state officials and the U.S. Department of Education -- asked for a review of the case, a new judge ruled that Chapter 2 of the act is indeed constitutional.
Prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions had distinguished between textbooks and other materials. The court has ruled textbooks can be reviewed for bias whereas the other materials could not be so easily monitored to determine whether they were being used to promote a particular religious agenda.
The case remained in lower federal courts for 13 years before it reached the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
After the defendants appealed, the Supreme Court accepted the case in June 1999 and heard oral arguments in April.
High court argues case on federal aid for religious schools
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