Dec 01, 1999

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a Louisiana case dealing with tax dollar aid to private religious schools, an important controversy that could have a large impact on the First Amendment and existing church-state law.

The case, Mitchell v. Helms, was originally brought 14 years ago by Louisiana parents who challenged several state and federal programs aiding parochial schools. The central concern being considered by the justices is a federal program providing computers, library books and other materials to parochial schools.

"Taxpayers should never be forced to financially support private religious education," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of the parents. "Public money should only be used for public purposes, and we hope the justices affirm that constitutional principle."

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 17, 1998, that the Louisiana program is unconstitutional. The Constitution bars such public aid to religious schools, the panel ruled.

"The Mitchell case could be a landmark ruling that will either reaffirm the court's support for church-state separation or knock a large hole in the wall that separates government and religion," Lynn concluded. "If the justices stick to the Constitution and existing court precedent, they will rule that aid to private schools must be voluntary."