High Courts Upholds N.Y. Textbook Law; Affirms Right to Challenge Education Aid
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High Courts Upholds N.Y. Textbook Law; Affirms Right to Challenge Education Aid

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The United States Supreme Court, in a six-to-three decision today, upheld a New York State law that requires public school systems to land textbooks to students in parochial and other private schools. But in another ruling today, the Court decided eight-to-one that taxpayer suits may be brought challenging Federal aid to parochial schools. The latter decision reversed a 1923 finding by the Supreme Court that individual taxpayers lacked standing in such cases because their individual tax payments were too small to prove adequate personal involvement. It cleared the way for a suit by seven New York residents who contend that Federal aid to pupils in church-related schools violates the Constitution.

The American Jewish Congress, one of several organizations sponsoring the New Yorkers’ test case, hailed the Supreme Court’s ruling today as a “landmark decision” which “gives new life to the First Amendment” and “marks the end of the anomalous situation under which violations of the principle of separation of church and state through use of public funds for parochial schools have been immune from challenge in the courts.” Howard M. Squadron, chairman of the AJ Congress’ commission on law and social action, said today that “we are now prepared to proceed with our suit to bring to a halt the use of Federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of 1965) to provide teachers and equipment for sectarian schools.”

The case for reversal of the 1923 ruling was argued before the Supreme Court last March by Leo Pfeffer, special counsel to the AJ Congress, who was joined before the bench by Sen. Sam J. Ervin. Democrat of North Carolina. The AJ Congress’ position was upheld in briefs filed by the National Council of Churches, the Council of State School officers and all of the national member agencies of the National Community Relations Advisory Council except the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations.

The decision on the New York State textbook law involved a test case brought by two local schools, one in the Albany area and the other on Long Island. The school boards had argued that the 1965 law promoted compulsory taxation to support religious training. Justice Byron R. White, speaking for the six-man majority in today’s decision said “we cannot agree…that all teaching in sectarian schools is religious or that the processes of secular or religious training are so intertwined that textbooks furnished students by the public are in fact instrumental in the teaching of religion.” He noted that such services as fire and police protection and sewage systems are of value to parochial schools but do not amount to support of religion in violation of the Constitution. Justice White added that the Supreme Court “has long recognized that private education has played and is playing a significant and valuable role in raising national levels of knowledge, competence and experience.” Separate dissents were written by Justices Abe Fortas. Hugo Black and William O. Douglas.

New York State is spending about $25 million a year under the law which benefits about 300,000 students including children in Catholic and Jewish schools. The Federal Government spends $419 million a year under the 1965 Elementary and Secondary School Education Act to provide special education programs for students in parochial schools.


Edwin J. Lukas, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, commenting on the textbook case, said, “we cannot conceal our disappointment over today’s…decision upholding the constitutionality of the New York law which requires the loan of secular textbooks to religious school pupils. In our view, it may be a serious blow to those who believe church and state must remain separate. This decision could open the floodgates to additional substantial public assistance to sectarian schools.” The AJCommittee was one of the organizations which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, an Orthodox organization which submitted a brief favoring the law, said it was “delighted with the decision.” The decision is a “major victory in the struggle to win fair treatment for non-public school children and opens new perspectives for additional benefits for these children,” declared Rabbi Moshe Sherer, executive president of Agudath Israel of America. The Orthodox leader asserted “hopefully the American Jewish Congress and other groups fighting Federal and state aid for religious school children will read the handwriting on the wall from this decision and will cease their campaigns.” Rabbi Sherer announced that Agudath Israel will now draft legislation seeking new benefits in Washington, Albany and other state capitols based on this decision.

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