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The high court on church and state

WE welcome this week's affirmation by the US Supreme Court of separation of church and state, one of the historic principles that has contributed to the strength of the United States. The decisions in two separate cases also constitute a victory for every American's right to be free of government encroachment in the individual practice of religion.

The Supreme Court decisions represent a defeat for the Reagan administration, which had strongly supported the two cases. They involved programs to use public funds to aid parochial students in New York City and Grand Rapids, Mich.

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This week's decisions say that public-school teachers may not be sent into parochial schools to provide such aid: We support that view. As Associate Justice William J. Brennan noted, writing for the majority, the New York program is well-intentioned, but the providing of secular instruction ``in the religious school buildings threatens to convey a message of state support for religion to students and the general public.'' The effect would have been for the government to have appeared to support one religion over others.

Had the court decisions gone the other way, there would have been a hidden negative element for religions. Federal programs come with strings attached, even if lightly: Some monitoring would have to be done to ensure that the program does not, even inadvertently, entangle church and state.

And monitoring of programs would have put the state in a position of being a watchdog over the religiously affiliated schools, an impermissible situation that would erode church and state separation.

Individuals have a right to be entirely free from government encroachment in the practice of their religion.

In the New York instance public-school teachers were providing remedial assistance in parochial schools to parochial students during the school day.

Grand Rapids was offering a two-part program. One sent public teachers into parochial schools to teach remedial and other courses; the second provided community education classes taught by parochial-school teachers paid for this work as part-time public-school teachers.

Urban school systems in many parts of the United States are running programs similar to New York's. Many communities thus will have to find new ways to carry out the federal law, known as Title I, that requires remedial education be provided to all disadvantaged students who need it, including those enrolled in private as well as public schools.

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One possible approach might be to bus eligible parochial school children to public buildings for after-hours instruction.

The court rulings come on the heels of two others earlier this year that also strengthened the principle of church and state separation.

In preceding years the court has produced a checkered pattern of decisions. It has approved federal funds to bus parochial students to school, and allowed the lending of public-school textbooks to those students.

But it has ruled unconstitutional the reimbursement of parochial schools for the cost of teaching secular subjects, and of maintenance and repair to parochial school buildings.

Inasmuch as providing public funding to religiously affiliated schools frees their own resources for use in other areas, it is an indirect government support for the religions in question.

Religions should be supported by private, not state funds. And all Americans should remain vigilant to preserve the separation between church and state.

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