Supreme Court Reviewing 1985 Church-state Decision
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Supreme Court Reviewing 1985 Church-state Decision

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The Supreme Court heard arguments in a closely watched case Tuesday that could have important implications for government’s relationship with religion.

In a move supported by Orthodox Jewish groups, lawyers for the Clinton administration and New York City urged the court to reverse its 1985 decision banning public school teachers from providing remedial instruction at parochial schools.

Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, the Clinton administration’s top courtroom lawyer, said the previous ruling had led to millions of dollars in unnecessary spending and continues to “impose burdens that critically impair” federal efforts to help underachieving students from low-income families.

On the other side, Stanley Geller, representing some New York taxpayers, argued that the practice of allowing public school teachers in parochial schools violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Renewed debate over the 12-year-old decision has split the Jewish community, with Jewish defense organizations and Orthodox groups filing friend-of-court briefs on opposite sides of the case.

The American Jewish Congress, speaking on behalf of several Jewish, religious and education groups, has urged the high court to uphold the basic principles of the 1985 ruling in Aguilar vs. Felton.

The decision could be modified to permit such classes, provided that safeguards are in place to guarantee that the principle of church-state separation is not violated, the brief argued.

Orthodox groups, meanwhile, say Jewish schools have suffered under the ruling and have long urged reconsideration of the decision.

To comply with the court’s decision and fulfill the federally mandated obligation to provide remedial instruction services to parochial students, public schools have spent hundreds of millions of dollars for transporting religious school students to public schools, teaching in mobile vans outside religious schools and at leased sites.

“This is a situation where the Supreme Court has an opportunity to reconsider a ruling that has left in its wake a whole lot of grief,” said David Zwiebel, general counsel and director of government affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which signed onto a brief calling on the justices to overturn the 1985 decision.

During Tuesday’s arguments in Agostini vs. Felton, some of the justices focused on procedural questions surrounding the appropriateness of reopening a prior court decision.

Five justices have openly questioned the wisdom of the 1985 ruling. It remains unclear, however, whether the high court will rule only on the merits of the case, or issue a broader decision about the constitutionality of government subsidies for religious education.

“This is a case where the rationale matters more than the result,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of AJCongress.

The court is expected to render a decision by the end of its term in June.

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