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High court keeps its distance from school vouchers debate; Refusal of Vermont case indicates willingness to let states decide


WASHINGTON -- Refusing to end the spreading confusion over the constitutionality of school vouchers, the Supreme Court turned aside yesterday a plea by parochial school students and parents in Vermont seeking equal access to tuition aid.

Within the past 13 months, the court has refused to hear four separate cases on public support for parochial school tuition. Those actions have come amid a rising number of conflicting rulings on the issue by lower courts.

The action yesterday on the Vermont case stressed anew that the justices are mainly willing to let the issue be decided state by state.

But the court's response has not been consistent. Early last month, the justices split 5-4 when they intervened to allow a parochial school voucher program in Cleveland to continue for the current school year.

That action appeared to have contributed further to the uncertainty about what is allowed.

Religion question

Aside from its action on Cleveland's voucher plan, keeping the aid intact only while lower courts review its validity, the court has shown no interest in the complaints by students and parents about being shut out of state aid to private schools solely because they have chosen religious schools.

That was the complaint made in the new appeal from Vermont.

In that state, communities that do not operate high schools are entitled under state law to pay tuition to parents -- aid that they may use at high schools in other communities, including private schools.

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled last June, however, that it would violate the state constitution to use public funds to pay for tuition at parochial schools.

A group of parents who live in Chittenden send their high school-age children to Mount Saint Joseph Academy, a Roman Catholic school in Rutland. Under a policy adopted in May 1996, the local school board reimbursed the parents for tuition at that school.

But, prompted by concerns over the constitutionality of aiding parochial schools, state education officials cut off state funds to the Chittenden district.

The parents, children and the local school district then went to court, arguing that the reimbursement of tuition at parochial schools was legal.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the parents and children argued: "This is a case about discrimination -- discrimination against religious ideas, religious people, and religious schools."

The state, the appeal said, provides "an immensely valuable benefit -- tuition," but it denies that benefit to families solely because they choose a religious school.

They contended that the denial violates their right to freely exercise their religion and their right of free speech.

The state supreme court rejected those claims, saying that the denial of tuition aid "requires no one to choose between following the precepts of his or her religion and forfeiting benefits that would otherwise be available from the government."

That was the ruling the Supreme Court refused to disturb yesterday.

The court earlier had declined to hear decisions reaching conflicting results on a similar tuition plan in Maine, a school voucher program in Milwaukee and a tuition tax credit plan in Arizona.

Bank robbery case accepted

In another action yesterday, the justices agreed to decide whether individuals charged with bank robbery under federal law have a right to have the jury consider a less serious offense -- bank larceny -- when the robbery was carried out without violence or intimidation.

That issue arises in a case of a New Jersey man who stole more than $16,000 from a bank in Hamilton Township in 1997. He was convicted of bank robbery, and was sentenced to 17 years and 11 months in prison.

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