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Supreme Court Watch

June 27, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Here to walk us through today’s ruling is NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, of the Chicago Tribune. So on school vouchers, did we get a sharply split court?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yes, we did. This issue divided the Justices just really as it’s divided the lower courts, the state legislatures and society. It was a very stark series of dissents today. The court ruled 5 to 4 in a decision written by the Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The court held today in the majority opinion that an Ohio program that allowed parents to use government money to send their children to religious schools did not violate the First Amendment, that that was part of a true private choice on the part of the parents, that the parents acted as a circuit that separated government and religion and that, therefore, the establishment clause of the First Amendment was not implicated. In his decision today, Rehnquist emphasized a long line of cases, he said, “an unbroken line” in which the court has consistently allowed this kind of indirect aid to religious schools.

RAY SUAREZ: And the dissenters weren’t all of one mind either, were they?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No. And the dissenters took very sharp issue with today’s ruling; in a dramatic announcement from the bench Justice David Souter said he feared the court had made a fundamental and possibly tragic mistake. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote separately, as well, in dissent, discussing the mistrust that we see in the Balkans, in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland, and saying he fears today’s ruling removing a brick from the wall of separation of church and state could lead to similar strife and mistrust here. Justice Breyer also wrote a separate dissent, talking about that strife and his concerns that today’s ruling would lead to further divisiveness.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, what does that tell us, when you get so many opinions written in a 5 to 4 decision?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That tells us that the court feels very strongly about this issue. For example, we had five Justices joining this majority opinion today, but two of them wrote separately to further express their views.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who many people who oppose vouchers had desperately hoped would provide the key swing vote to shoot down all these programs, she was with the majority today. She wrote separately to dismiss what she said were alarmist claims by the dissenters and to emphasize that today’s ruling was no dramatic departure, that the court in previous years dating back two decades, had allowed people to take tax deductions for educational expenses, sending their children to religious schools.We’ve allowed the Pell Grants to be used at Catholic colleges. We allow senior citizens to use Medicare to go to Catholic hospitals. She saw it as no major departure.

Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote a separate concurring opinion in which he spoke movingly of poor urban families and their plight of seeking better educational opportunities for their children. It was quite a dramatic day, very dramatic opinions on both sides of the issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thanks a lot.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thank you.