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The Carroll County Commissioners have allocated $400,000 this fiscal year to reimburse some educational expenses of parents who home-schooled or sent their children to private schools. The money came from a $10 million surplus fund.

The grants will be in addition to the $4.4 million provided annually by Maryland state government to nonpublic schools to buy textbooks.

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Does the U.S. Constitution allow governmental aid to parents of children attending religious schools, under the separation of church and state clause?

Warning: no definitive answer here. Ultimately, the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution, and it decides what the founders meant - until a later Court decides otherwise. On church-state issues, the Court's decisions have been inconsistent.

Why bother asking, if there is no clear answer? Because it intrigues lawyers and because the local aid issue has recently come up in several conversations.

The First Amendment to the Constitution says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The framers wanted to ensure two principles, applied to states by the 14th Amendment:

  • No one is forced to support a specific religion.
  • Government must stay out of churches' business.

County aid to parents of private secular school students does not raise a church-state issue. Whether the church-state issue is raised for home-schooled children may depend on the religious component of the curriculum.

Court decisions say clearly that governments cannot aid religion directly. But rulings on indirect aid have been less clear. The commissioners plan to channel grants through a fund administered by the Community Foundation of Carroll County.

When the Supreme Court accepts a church-state case, justices turn to the history of rulings on similar cases for guidance.

A brief summary:

  • In 1947, the Court ruled 5-4 that state-funded bus transportation for children attending parochial schools did not violate the Constitution. The majority ruled the state could not exclude individuals from the benefits of public welfare legislation, such as student transportation, because of their faith. Dissenting justices said the First Amendment's purpose was to create complete separation of church and state by prohibiting public aid to religion.
  • In 1971, the Court ruled that states could not pay Catholic school teachers for teaching secular subjects. The Court reasoned that the Catholic Church could use the money saved for religious purposes. That ruling established the "Lemon test," named for one of the parties, that government acts regarding religion must have a secular purpose, can neither advance nor inhibit religion and cannot foster "excessive entanglement" with religion.
  • In 1985, the Court ruled 5-4 that public school teachers could not teach remedial classes for educationally deprived children in parochial schools. Ten years later, the decision was overturned.
  • In 2002, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of a Cleveland school voucher program that parents used almost exclusively to send their children to parochial schools.

Can Carroll County government legally help pay expenses for religious education? Maybe.

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