Courts Say Sectarian Schools May Receive Public Funding
Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Byline: Larry Witham
New federal court rulings agree that a "pervasively sectarian" organization may receive public funds as a matter of government neutrality toward religion, a reversal of Supreme Court thinking from the 1970s.
The latest ruling came June 26, when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said Columbia Union College, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Takoma Park, must be given access to Maryland state funds provided to other schools.
The court said that despite the college's close ties to a church, providing funds to it under the state's Father Sellinger Program does not establish religion in violation of the Constitution.
The First Amendment "requires government neutrality, not hostility, to religious belief," the appeals court ruling said.
The result in the 9-year-old case adds to a new trend in court thinking, advocates say. Now, the court is less concerned whether an organization is "pervasively sectarian," or very religious, and is more concerned that government not penalize such groups in comparison to other organizations.
Last year, in a 6-3 ruling that allowed Louisiana Catholic schools to receive state funding for secular materials such as computers, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said in the majority opinion that a history of prejudice was behind penalizing overtly religious organizations.
"It was an open secret that `sectarian' was a code for `Catholic,'" he wrote. "This doctrine, born of bigotry, should be buried now."
In the new ruling, the federal appeals court cited Justice Thomas' assertion in the so-called Mitchell case in Louisiana.
"The 4th Circuit has now interpreted that Mitchell, in fact, is saying the `pervasively sectarian' doctrine is dead," said Curt Levey, legal director for the Center for Individual Rights, which defended Columbia Union. "It has been replaced by something the court has called `neutrality plus.'" That was a term other justices used in the Mitchell decision on the Louisiana schools. …