On January 9, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a lower court’s ruling in favor of government funding for teachers in Catholic schools. The ruling provides yet another precedent favoring school choice, said Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice and a litigator in the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, which upheld Cleveland’s citywide voucher program.
“Since Zelman,” Bolick said, “we have seen an unbroken line of federal court cases supporting school choice. No federal constitutional obstacle to school choice exists.”
By declining to review the case, the Supreme Court upheld the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in American Jewish Congress v. Corporation for National and Community Service. In March 2005, the appeals court ruled in favor of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, overturning an earlier federal court decision that said AmeriCorps violates the U.S. Constitution by providing awards to teachers in religious schools.
The AmeriCorps program provides a financial aid benefit of $4,725 to individuals who serve at least 1,700 hours at organizations that meet public safety, education, environment, and other human and community needs. The program also provides participating organizations $400 for each AmeriCorps participant, to assist with the cost of training and administration. Both secular and faith-based organizations may apply to participate in the program.
At the heart of the controversy was a program managed by the University of Notre Dame and approved by AmeriCorps that trains and places AmeriCorps participants at needy Catholic schools. Participants, who teach secular subjects to meet the terms of AmeriCorps participation, may also teach religious classes if they choose. The American Jewish Congress (AJC) objected to the fact that participants may also teach religious classes. They also contended the award of direct grants for administration and training to faith-based organizations violates the First Amendment.
In July 2004, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the AJC, describing such practices as “impermissible government indoctrination in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.”
Decades of Precedents
The appeals court reversed the decision. Citing cases from the past two decades–Zelman, Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School Dist. (1993), Witters v. Washington Dep’t of Servs. for Blind (1986), and Mueller v. Allen (1983)–the court stated a government program does not violate the Constitution if it is neutral toward religion and benefits a broad class of citizens who provide funds to religious institutions through private independent choices. Such aid, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, does not amount to an endorsement of religion.
The appeals court noted AmeriCorps awards are available to a broad class of individuals without regard to religion. Participants who teach religious courses in addition to secular courses do so of their own free will. Only hours spent teaching secular subjects count toward the 1,700-hour minimum, and teachers may not wear the AmeriCorps logo when teaching religious courses. Likewise, the $400 grants are available to all participating organizations without regard to religion.
The ruling rests on a firm foundation of precedents that allow government funding to faith-based institutions including schools, said Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Opportunity in Washington, DC.
“When the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of American Jewish Congress v. AmeriCorps, it reaffirmed its 2002 precedent in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris ruling,” Coulson said. “The U.S. Constitution does not forbid government funds from reaching religious schools, so long as the funding program itself is religiously neutral.”
Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in Denver.
For more information …
The March 8, 2005, decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #18538.
The full text of other Court decisions cited in this article is also available through PolicyBot™. Choose the Topic/Subtopic combination Education/Court Decisions.