Court refuses to consider cases on religious activity; Justices reject hearing school voucher plan, two tax proposal issues


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court rebuffed yesterday three new attempts to gain government support for religious activity -- possibly an interruption of the justices' trend toward allowing closer links between government and religion.

In separate orders with no explanation, the justices refused to rule on these issues:

The constitutionality of a school tuition voucher program in Maine that excludes parochial students.

The latest effort to create a tax-supported school district for a Hasidic Jewish village in New York.

A plea to revive a Pennsylvania sales tax exemption for the purchase of the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon and other sacred texts.

The justices' decision to bypass such widely varying issues indicated at least caution about delving more deeply into church-state dealings -- despite a series of recent rulings allowing government to do more to accommodate religious practices and beliefs.

The court had the option, but did not take it, of holding the cases until it decides a major case on government aid to parochial schools. On Dec. 1, the court is to hear a Louisiana case involving the constitutionality of lending taxpayer-financed computers and other learning aids to parochial schools.

The justices may wish to decide that one case, lay down new constitutional principles, then let lower courts apply it to other church-state disputes.

Although some observers have been watching the Louisiana case for signs of the court's reaction to the growing use of tuition vouchers for parochial students, the court over the past year has denied review of four cases on public financial assistance to religious schools.

Two cases, from Maine, were simultaneously rejected yesterday. Earlier, the court bypassed a parochial school tax credit plan from Arizona and a tuition voucher plan from Milwaukee.

In Maine, districts that do not operate their own high school are permitted to issue vouchers for students at private schools. But since 1980, the program has barred vouchers for use at parochial schools, to avoid government aid to religion.

The exclusion of parochial students was upheld in rulings this year by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and by a federal appeals court based in Boston. Two groups of parents challenged those rulings in unsuccessful appeals to the Supreme Court.

As a result of yesterday's actions, no tuition voucher program is likely to reach the justices during the rest of the term. Cases on the issue are moving forward in courts in Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but none is near a final ruling.

Richard Komer, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, an advocacy group that supports voucher programs, said the court orders yesterday "should not be seen as a rejection of school choice or vouchers. It simply means that the court does not yet consider the issue ripe for review."

By contrast, Barry W. Lynn, executive director of a group that is hostile to parochial vouchers, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said all of the court's denials of review on religion cases yesterday suggest that the justices "seem to be in no mood to move the boundary markers between religion and government."

The court's next chance to deal with issues in this area could come next month, when the justices act on an appeal by a public school district in Santa Fe, Texas. The appeal argues that students should be allowed to pray at the beginning of high school football games.

Although the court has banned praying at public schools when it is led or arranged by teachers or school officials, it has never ruled on the constitutionality of prayers initiated and carried out by students.

Last week, two mothers of students in the Santa Fe high school who oppose game-day prayers urged the justices to turn aside the school district's appeal, arguing that the practice runs afoul of Supreme Court rulings that shielded students from religious practices that make them feel like outsiders at school.

The court's refusal to hear a new case on a public school district for the upstate New York village of Kiryas Joel, established by devout Jews of the Satmar Hasidic sect, marked the second time that the justices have rebuffed that plan.

Five years ago, the justices struck down a state law to create such a district to educate the village's handicapped children in a public school of their own.

Since then, two other attempts by the state legislature to rewrite the law have been nullified by the state's highest court.

The latest such decision by the state court came in May; that ruling was left intact by the justices yesterday.

While the village's new appeal was awaiting the court's action, the New York Legislature passed a fourth law to create a Kiryas Joel district. That has not yet been tested in court.

Pub Date: 10/13/99

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