The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously that the State of Washington is not obligated by the First Amendment to deny vocational-rehabilitation funds to a blind college student aspiring to become a minister. However, in making this decision, five of the nine Justices strongly emphasized that states do not violate the Constitution when they offer "completely unbiased" educational aid to individuals, irrespective of their age, for use in public or church-affiliated schools.
This ruling has sparked a fresh debate on the constitutionality of the Reagan Administrations plan to distribute Chapter 1 remedial-education aid in the form of vouchers that can be used in both public and private schools.
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett praised the Courts decision, stating that it was "heartening" for proponents of the Administrations proposal. The proposal aims to provide vouchers averaging around $600 to parents of disadvantaged students, which can be used at public or private schools for tuition or remedial services. Mr. Bennett commended the Witters ruling for recognizing that as long as government assistance is provided without bias, students can utilize it to attend schools of their choice, including religiously-affiliated institutions. He further expressed his support for initiatives promoting educational choice.
However, opponents of the voucher proposal have a different perspective on the impact of the Courts decision. Arnold Fege, the director of governmental relations for the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, expressed concern that this case might be misunderstood. He noted that there are substantial differences between aid provided to college students and aid provided to elementary and secondary school students, a distinction repeatedly made by the Court.
The Witters case originated in 1979 when Larry Witters, a blind ministerial student at Inland Empire School of the Bible in Spokane, applied for vocational-rehabilitation assistance from the state. The state commission in charge of the aid program denied his application, deeming it a violation of the state constitution. This ruling was upheld on administrative appeal. Mr. Witters then filed a lawsuit in a state court, which affirmed the administrative ruling based on the First Amendment.
The state high court applied the Supreme Courts three-part test to determine the constitutionality of state aid to religious institutions. It concluded that while the program served a secular purpose, providing assistance to Mr. Witters would primarily advance religion. The court did not need to assess whether the aid created excessive government involvement with religion, the third prong of the test.
In his opinion, Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall, along with three other Justices, highlighted that based on the facts presented in the case, there was no federal constitutional barrier to providing aid to Mr. Witters. The vocational assistance under the Washington program is directly paid to the student, who then transmits it to their chosen educational institution. Any aid that reaches religious institutions does so solely due to the independent choices of aid recipients.
Justice Marshall emphasized that the aid program does not unconstitutionally promote religion. He further remarked that the case record did not provide sufficient evidence to determine whether the aid program resulted in excessive entanglement between government and religion. Consequently, he sent the case back to the state high court for a more comprehensive development of the factual record or reconsideration on whether the aid should be prohibited under the stricter requirements of the state constitution.
In conclusion, the Supreme Courts decision in the Witters case has reignited the discussion surrounding the constitutionality of educational aid vouchers and their use in public and private schools.
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