High court agrees to decide legality of school vouchers

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, tackling a stark church-state issue dear to President Bush, agreed yesterday to decide whether the Constitution permits using taxpayer dollars to pay religious-school tuition.

The court will hear challenges sometime early next year to a 6-year-old school-voucher program involving 3,700 children in Cleveland. A ruling is expected by summer.

Supporters hope the conservative-led court will use the case to broaden its recent trend of approving limited uses of taxpayer money at religious schools. Opponents, too, say the court's ruling could be a landmark.

"This is probably the most important church-state case in the last half-century," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The case poses a direct query about the Constitution's position on government money and religion. Recent church-state cases, while important, have explored more peripheral matters, such as whether a prayer group may meet in a public-school building.

In its coming term, which begins Oct. 1, the court also said it would rule on several other cases:

Public housing: The justices agreed to decide whether a national policy that evicts public-housing tenants for a single drug offense is too harsh. Critics say the policy punishes innocent family members for the wrongdoing of one resident.

Death penalty: The court will rule on whether it is constitutional to execute the mentally retarded.

Illegal immigrants: The court agreed to decide if a company should be forced to pay an illegal immigrant employee fired for supporting a union. The National Labor Relations Board had urged the court to let stand a ruling in favor of the fired worker.

Social Security: The justices will review whether people can still qualify for Social Security disability payments if they are able to hold a job within a year of suffering the disability.

Vouchers let parents use government subsidies to pay at least some of the tuition at private and parochial schools. In Ohio, parents can get up to $2,500 in tuition help. All but a handful of the schools participating in the Ohio program are religious.

Supporters say vouchers, also known as school choice, give children an escape from eroded and dangerous public schools, give public schools incentive to improve and give parents some control over bureaucracies.

Political opponents, including teachers unions and most congressional Democrats, say vouchers siphon precious public money from the neediest schools.

Vouchers were a centerpiece of Bush's education-campaign platform. But there was not enough Republican support for the idea when Congress recently passed a sweeping education-reform package, and the idea was shelved temporarily.

The court last ruled on vouchers directly in 1973. It struck down a school-voucher program because public money went to "subsidize and advance the religious mission of sectarian schools."

The court has become more conservative since then and has allowed pro-voucher decisions from lower courts to stand. It also has allowed government aid to religious schools for things such as computers and remedial tutoring.