Supreme Court Upholds Parochial School Aid, ACLU Says Church-State Wall Eroded

June 23, 1997 12:00 am

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Monday, June 23 1997

WASHINGTON — In an unusual move, the United States Supreme Court today reversed a 1985 precedent forbidding public school teachers from entering parochial schools to teach remedial classes, saying that the practice does not violate the Constitution’s separation between church and state.

The 5-to-4 decision written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was unusual in that the Supreme Court revisited practically the case it decided 12 years ago, only to reach a completely different conclusion. Like the 1985 ruling, the decision today came in a challenge brought by New York City and a group of parents who wanted to send public teachers into parochial schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said the ruling undermines the Establishment Clause by allowing the government to fund religious institutions.

“The wall separating church and state sustained a heavy hit today,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s legal director. “Allowing public teachers to instruct students in parochial schools is tantamount to allowing our tax dollars to support religious institutions. In the minds of many schoolchildren it will inevitably create a symbolic union between church and state. The Court got it right in 1985 when it said the practice violates church-state principles.”

The case stems from a 1965 federal law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides money for remedial education and counseling services to needy students, no matter what school they attend.

In its 1985 decision, Aguilar v. Felton, the Supreme Court said that New York and other school systems could not meet that obligation by sending public school teachers inside parochial classrooms. Instead, the Court ruled, public schools must offer remedial classes to those students in a non-religious setting.

“Although today’s decision is disappointing, it is still a long way from endorsing vouchers,” said Shapiro, referring to suggestions that today’s decision may imply the Court’s approval of school voucher plans. The case is Agostini v. Felton, No. 96-552.

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