Court Rights Wrong Term in School Ruling

Article excerpt

Backers of the Supreme Court's ruling that government may fund supplies to children at religious schools say the decision also righted a historic wrong by dismissing the term "sectarian."

The term "pervasively sectarian" has been part of Supreme Court parlance since the 1970s, but now lawyers and jurists are emphasizing that it arose a century ago amid bigotry against Catholic immigrants and their schools.

"It was an open secret that `sectarian' was a code for `Catholic,' " Justice Clarence Thomas wrote Wednesday in his lead opinion in the 6-3 decision. "This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now."

Catholic educators applauded Justice Thomas' decision for rejecting the doctrine as outmoded.

"Law doesn't happen in a vacuum," said Leonard DeFiore, president of the National Catholic Educational Association. "The idea of `sectarian' reflected our society at a time when there were still strong antagonisms between Protestants and Catholics."

In cases where the state or legal council wishes to block government assistance to a religious organization, the claim that it is "pervasively sectarian" often is used.

The decision that it was constitutional for students in Louisiana parochial schools to receive supplies such as computers reversed a 1990 decision by a district court judge.

The judge said the funding had an unconstitutional religious purpose because the schools were "pervasively sectarian."

What began as a Catholic bias, some legal scholars say, eventually affected other religions.

For example, Columbia Union College, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Takoma Park, was denied Maryland state funding given to at least three Catholic colleges because the state decided it was "pervasively sectarian."

"Columbia Union College appears to have substantially more formal ties to the church and less institutional autonomy" than the Catholic institutions, the state had said in 1992.

Curt A. Levey, director of legal affairs at the Center for Individual Rights, expects to appeal the Columbia Union case to the Supreme Court on the basis that state neutrality requires blindness to the kind of school a student goes to.

"We are arguing that Columbia Union is not pervasively sectarian and, even if it were, government must be neutral" in giving student aid, he said.

Under neutrality, he said, "No one will care if a school is pervasively sectarian, mildly religious or completely atheist."

Last year, Justice Thomas had wanted to grant a hearing to a preliminary Columbia Union appeal and wrote that the "pervasively sectarian" doctrine had suspicious origins. …