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Supreme Court to Reexamine View of Church-State Relations

By Editorial Staff
Published November 1, 1989

WASHINGTON, D.C. (FR) – The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a number of cases exploring the relationship between church and state during its current session which began on October 2.

The Court will decide the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act, passed in 1984, which requires schools to open their facilities to religiously-orientated student groups if they permit non-religious student clubs.

On July 3, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case called Westside Board of Education vs. Mergens. The Court will examine equal access in the Mergens case, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of a Christian student group that had been forbidden to meet on school grounds. The Court could also review the Garnett case, a similar case, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against a Christian student group.

The Court is expected to uphold Equal Access by a wide margin.

Another case that may appear this session, but is not yet scheduled for review, involves Larry Witters, a disabled man from the state of Washington who wants to use funding from a state educational assistance program to pursue a seminary education. Previously the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that his individual choice to use a state education grant at a religious school did not pose a constitutional problem. But the Washington Supreme Court has since overruled the decision, claiming that the state’s constitutional prohibition of establishment of religion is stricter than federal legal codes.

Witters’ case is expected to win review because it involves a conflict between state and federal standards, and because the lower state court is acting out of accordance with the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jordan Lawrence, litigation director for Concerned Women for America, thinks that Witters’ case could lead to a landmark decision by the Court. “I think it has significant implications,” Lawrence said. “The case is innocently asking for the Supreme Court to review this whole area once again and adopt a constitutional principle that if the government makes money available to anyone, as an individual, they can use it to attend a religious institution. It could produce a very important decision.”

Other decisions made recently by lower courts have upheld the religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. In Denver, Colorado, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch ruled that students have a constitutional right to distribute a publication at their high school that promoted Christian principles. In New Orleans, Louisiana, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that a public library in Oxford, Mississippi may not prohibit a Concerned Women for America prayer chapter from using its facilities because of the religious content of the group’s meetings.

These cases and other upcoming decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court promise to reestablish and uphold the constitutional right of religious freedom, which had been denied to millions of Americans in recent years.


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