Supreme Court Opens Door to School Vouchers

This week’s decision by the Supreme Court not to hear a case involving a pioneering school voucher program in Milwaukee postponed a judicial showdown over theconstitutionality of government aid to parochial institutions.

11/13/98
Washington Correspondent
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Door Opened For Vouchers This week’s decision by the Supreme Court not to hear a case involving a pioneering school voucher program in Milwaukee postponed a judicial showdown over theconstitutionality of government aid to parochial institutions. But there was widespread agreement that the move may send a signal to cities and states considering similar programs, which provide tax vouchers to parents who send their children to private or parochial schools, and to lower courts that are beginning to rule on such programs. “It’s not a legal precedent, but it’s a message,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union, a group that strongly supports voucher programs. By an 8-1 vote, the justices let stand without comment the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling that the program does not represent a violation of church-state separation. The Wisconsin judges upheld the program because it has a secular purpose — and because its primary function is not to advance religion. “The Court basically decided to wait and let the issue percolate in state courts, and see what fact patterns and opinions emerge,” said Marshall Breger, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America and a leading voucher supporter. “It means we will have an ongoing experiment in Milwaukee to see whether all these terrible things that are supposed to happen to the public schools if parents actually have a choice actually happen.” This week’s decision “puts off a definitive constitutional decision for at least a year or two,” he said. Voucher supporters and opponents alike expressed confidence that a decision would have supported their positions. “There is some disappointment that the Court didn’t hear the case, since we feel the constitutional arguments supporting vouchers are persuasive,” said Abba Cohen, Washington director for Agudath Israel of America. “We would have welcomed a decision that would have provided greater clarity on the issue.” Jewish groups against the vouchers also hoped for a clear decision. “We opposed [the Wisconsin plan] on three grounds,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director and counsel for the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s unconstitutional, it’s bad public policy and its bad for religion; it will set up a situation in which religious groups are engaged in divisive competition for scarce funds.” Voucher opponents felt the Wisconsin case was a particularly good one on which to take a stand. “The constitutional issues were clearer than in some other cases,” Lieberman said. “We had a clear shot with this case. Originally, the Wisconsin program served families with children in private, non-religious schools. But the program was expanded to cover children in religious schools, as well, which triggered the initial lawsuit. GOP Shows Respect For Tisha B’Av The Republican National Committee, in planning its 2000 convention in Philadelphia, had a tentative date all picked out. But then some RNC staffer noticed some obscure-sounding Jewish holiday on the calendar. Just to be on the safe side, GOP officials had two leading Republican Jews — RNC finance chair Mel Sembler and Matt Brooks, executive director of the national Jewish Coalition — consult with Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the ever-present Lubavitch emissary on Capitol Hill. Rabbi Shemtov gave them the bad news; the holiday in question was Tisha b’Av, not some obscure festival. Observant Jews would not be able to attend the convention, he warned. And besides, “I told this is not a happy day on the Jewish calendar, and that it would not be a good omen to hold the convention on that day,” Rabbi Shemtov said this week. The Republicans got the message. The Convention is now scheduled to start on July 29. “I believe they moved it to show sensitivity to the Jewish community” said Rabbi Shemtov, who took pains to remind a reporter that his services are thoroughly bipartisan in nature. AIPAC Mourns Newt’s Move Pundits and politicians alike, united in their inaccurate predications about last week’s congressional elections, are now busily assessing who’s up and who’s down in the reconfigured Congress. In the Jewish world, there was gloom in the offices of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby. Close observers say that AIPAC’s legendary power to rebound is undiminished, but the group suffered a significant blow with the surprise decision by House Speaker Newt Gingrich to give up his job, and his congressional seat as well. AIPAC had a tight relationship with Gingrich that went far beyond the fact that the speaker’s chief of staff — Arne Christianson — was the former legislative director of the pro-Israel lobby. Even critics agreed that Gingrich had a strong, gut-level commitment to the Jewish state. And his close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the two have been in regular phone contact since Netanyahu’s rise to power in 1996, and the outgoing speaker reportedly counseled Netanyahu before the recent Wye River summit — gave AIPAC a special edge in Congress and in the group’s dealings with the Clinton administration, although it was also a source of controversy in the divided Jewish community. AIPAC activists say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach to Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), whose announcement that he would challenge Gingrich set in motion last week’s fast-moving palace coup. Several said they expect AIPAC lobbyists will be able to work with him, but that right now, connections to the Louisiana lawmaker are meager. But the loss of Gingrich —“AIPAC’s magic bullet,” said a former staffer — was a blow to the group. AIPACers are also reportedly less than thrilled with the likely ascension of Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) to the ranking slot on the House International Relations Committee, replacing the retiring Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.). Gejdenson, who is Jewish, is fiercely pro-Israel, but he has sometimes locked horns with the pro-Israel giant; Washington sources say he is still piqued about AIPAC’s efforts to quash a letter he circulated among colleagues praising the U.S. role in the Mideast talks at a time when the pro-Israel lobby was pushing a much tougher letter warning against administration pressure. Sam Gejdenson’s new status isn’t the only committee question that’s attracting the attention of Jewish officials here. Capitol Hill sources now say that Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), the only Jewish Republican in the House, will probably hold on to his chairmanship of the International Relations Committee, at least until 2000, when the 76-year-old legislator is likely to retire. Gilman got the International Relations job because of his closeness to Gingrich; the unexpected departure of the Speaker prompted talk that Gilman, too, might be on his way out. But this week, Capitol Hill sources say Gilman has been assured he can stay. Also on everybody’s watch list: the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, until recently the private domain of Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.). D’Amato’s crushing defeat last week at the hands of Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) means the post will probably go to Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas). D’Amato used his position on the committee as a cudgel against Swiss bankers and bureaucrats who were less than cooperative in the effort to restore looted Nazi-era assets, and to focus worldwide attention on the issue — something Gramm, who has not been involved in the restitution issue, is not expected to do. Push To Expand Holocaust Conference Jewish leaders are pressing the Clinton administration to make this month’s international meeting on looted Jewish assets a substantive one, and not simply another media event on the issue of Nazi thievery. The goal of the conference at the State Department is to build on last year’s London conference, which focused primarily on pilfered gold. This time, participants from some 42 countries will focus on a broader range of issues, with a special emphasis on art works and insurance. A key goal, according to officials of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a co-sponsor of the conference, is to expand scholarly research around the world on the lingering injustices of the Nazi era. But the World Jewish Congress, the group that touched off the current round of restitution battles, is worried that the core issues may get lost in the media hype. “The danger facing the conference is that it could become little more than a discussion festival,” said Elan Steinberg, the WJC’s executive director. “It’s very important that we deal with tachlis, [the core. There’s nothing wrong with simply exchanging information, but we want the conference to advance the cause of moral and material restitution in very practical ways.” Steinberg is urging State Department officials to “bring together developing mechanisms around the world to provide long-overdue compensation. We’re hoping to announce substantial progress on the insurance question. And the art issue will come up in some detail. We want to push all participating governments on the issue.” Last week, the group announced the discovery of a list of 2,000 people involved in Nazi-era art looting. The list, discovered during the WJC’s ongoing hunt through World War II era archives, was compiled by U.S. Intelligence officials but buried amid mountains of dusty records. The WJC was expected to make the list public this week; it includes individuals in a number of European countries. Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, the administration’s point man in the looted assets effort, said that he hopes the conference will generate enough momentum to bring it to a conclusion by Dec. 31, 1999 — although few Jewish activists expect things to proceed that rapidly. The conference is scheduled to begin on Nov. 30 in Washington.

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03/06/2012 - 23:10

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