U.S. Supreme Court to Decide on Religious-School Vouchers

Seen as Early Test of Bush´s Faith-Based Initiatives

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WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 26, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The U.S. Supreme Court said it will decide this term whether taxpayer money can be used to pay for children to attend religious schools.

The court will hear challenges early next year to a 6-year-old school voucher program involving about 3,700 children in Cleveland, Ohio. A ruling is expected by June.

The voucher case offers an early legal test of President George W. Bush´s faith-based initiative. The president wants public funds to flow to religious charities, but the high court in the past has said the Constitution forbids direct public funding of religious institutions.

Yet, Richard W. Garnett, assistant professor at the Notre Dame Law School, writing for National Review Online, stated: «While, all admit, Court-watching is a precarious business, most scholars and observers expect the justices to uphold school choice.»

The outcome of the case also may shape the future of school reform. Proponents of vouchers say they offer hope to children who are trapped in the nation´s worst public schools. These funds give parents a real choice, they say, and allow them to transfer their sons or daughters to nearby private and parochial schools.

In 1995, the Ohio Legislature began offering scholarships, or vouchers, for children from low-income families in Cleveland. Each child is eligible to receive as much as $2,500 to pay for private or parochial school. As many as 4,000 students have taken up the offer, and 96% of them transferred from public to religious schools.

Opponents of vouchers, including the nation´s teachers unions, say such programs drain money from the public system and thereby weaken the schools that educate the vast majority of children.

The opponents fear that if a limited use of vouchers is upheld, Ohio lawmakers will expand the tuition subsidies statewide.

The Supreme Court will not decide whether vouchers are a good idea or a bad one. Rather, the justices will rule on whether this diversion of public money to parochial schools violates the 1st Amendment´s ban on laws «respecting an establishment of religion.»

The case, known as Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris, will be heard in January.

The outcome probably depends on Justice Sandra Day O´Connor, according to the Los Angeles Times. Four justices have voted regularly to allow more state aid for religious schools, and O´Connor usually, but not always, joins them, the paper reported.

Besides vouchers, the court also made clear it will rule this term on whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a mentally retarded murderer.

Currently, 18 of the 32 states that have the death penalty exclude those who are mentally retarded. Texas, California and Virginia are among the states that do not.

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