Suit Challenges Internet Funds to Parochial Schools

Article excerpt

Library and education observers are closely watching the progress of a potential challenge to the national e-rate program brewing in Wisconsin, where the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit against the state November 4. The lawsuit claims that telecommunications subsidies offered to parochial schools and sectarian colleges violate First Amendment principles.

The Madison-based foundation that through its 20-year history has pressed for separation of government and religion challenged Wisconsin's recent Educational Telecommunications Access Program that uses tax monies to provide Internet access to both public and private schools. The program is part of the state's multimillion-dollar Technology for Educational Achievement (TEACH) initiative, approved by the legislature in 1997.

In a July 28 letter to FFRF attorney Jeffrey Kassel, TEACH executive director Doris Hanson stated that in addition to a range of public educational institutions, private K-12 schools and private colleges may also receive discounted rates. Those approved to participate would pay a monthly $100 rate for Internet access and the state would pick up the remaining cost of $600, or $7,200 a year.

The FFRF sees this new subsidy as illegal state support of religion. For the 1998-99 school year, according to the complaint filed by Kassel, 13 religious elementary schools, 13 religious high schools, and at least 10 religious colleges in the state have already been approved for subsidies.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of FFRF's newspaper Freethought Daily, told American Libraries the Educational Telecommunications Access Program statute contains "no stipulation that they [religious schools] cannot use this for religious purposes; and if there were such a limit, it's unenforceable."

Gaylor and the foundation claim that civic government is overstepping its proper function by subsidizing parochial schools. …