JIM LEHRER: Now the Supreme Court and the separation of church and state. The justices heard arguments today in an education case from New York State. Elizabeth Farnsworth reports.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The children at Sacred Heart Primary School in the South Bronx do a lot of walking. About 100 of the Catholic school's 900 students participate in remedial education programs. They're provided for poor students by the federal government in a program called Title I.
But because of a 1985 Supreme Court decision remedial classes taught by public school teachers cannot take place inside parochial schools. So the New York City Board of Education parks three vans down the street from Sacred Heart. The children put on their coats and are escorted from their classrooms by parent volunteers.
At the school door they're met by the van drivers, who help them cross the street and enter the vans. After an hour or sometimes less of instruction, they return to Sacred Heart in two straight lines. Teachers complain the walk to the vans takes time that could be better spent in the classroom.
RON BELLIN, Public School Teacher: The walk here is about a half a block from the school entrance, and so to walk here and back it takes up at least 10 minutes of the instruction time each, for each group. So that mounts up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The 1985 Supreme Court decision was based on preserving the separation of church and state by keeping public school teachers out of parochial schools. But teachers say that decision has resulted in less than ideal working conditions.
OLIVE TOMLINSON, Public School Teacher: Living in a hot sardine can, praying that you don't offend the neighbors with the exhaust pipes, trying to make the best of a very annoying situation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And teachers complain the situation is especially difficult for small children.
MAXINE BENDER, Public School Teacher: We have no water on the bus, especially with the young children. This bus is so far away that the children have to be reminded to go to the bathroom. Usually at the beginning of the year, that's stressed; before they leave, they must go to the bathroom. Yeah. There have been accidents.
JOANNE WALSH, Principal, Sacred Heart Primary School: During the winter--and the winter before this was particularly difficult, with all the snow and the ice. The sidewalk is not shoveled. People use that as a pathway, themselves, and it becomes iced up very quickly. So it's a danger.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The youngest children at Sacred Heart, kindergartners and first graders, get no remedial education because the school's principal believes they can't handle the trip across the street. Yet, she says, they would benefit most from the special classes.
JOANNE WALSH: The interventions in kindergarten and first grade, if they are consistent and not interrupted, and if they're directed, make a difference. There's plenty of studies that will show that. And that really is a key. And that has been a big loss by the program being moved out of the school, one of the biggest losses is those children are not--their needs are not being met.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To remedy the Title I problems a group of parochial school parents and the New York City Board of Education filed a motion asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1985 ruling and to allow remedial teachers to work inside the parochial schools as they did prior to that time. The motion for reconsideration argues that moving Title I teachers to the off-site classrooms has produced inferior education and excessive costs. Each van costs $100,000 per year to operate, and the program has cost New York taxpayers more than $100 million since 1985. The parents, the Board of Education, and the Clinton administration, which has weighed in on their side, all argue the money could be better spent educating more children. But attorney Stanley Geller doesn't buy that argument.
STANLEY GELLER, Attorney: The Constitution wasn't written by people who were worried about cost and efficiency; they were worried about basic rights of religious liberty. And one of our arguments on the constitutional issue would be--as well as in the procedural issue--is, so what, so it costs more money, and it's less efficient, but it's intended to preserve religious liberty.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Geller has argued numerous cases involving separation of church and state, including the 1962 case which led to banning prayer in schools and the 1985 case which resulted in the off-site classrooms. He believes it's even more important today that the principle of keeping the government and the church apart remain sacred.
STANLEY GELLER: Never more than today has there been a--had there been religious organizations that appeared bent on making the machinery of government work for their religious purposes and vice versa. It's a grave danger that the government may use the machinery of religious organizations to further their purpose.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Although it's unusual for the Supreme Court to rehear a case and even more unusual to reverse their own decision, five of the current justices, a majority, have criticized the 1985 decision. At the court today lawyers for both sides made their cases.
LISA THURAU, National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty: I want to refer to James Madison who said, "Not even threepence of the taxpayers' money can be used to a purpose that supports a religious organization or a religious mission that the taxpayer never agreed to support." That's the bottom line. That's what this country's founded on. There is no change in that rule of law or decision, and we want it to be abided by.
PAUL CROTTY, New York City Corporation Counsel: We would like to put--as we did for 19 years--we would like to put the public school teachers back onto the parochial school premises to teach them remedial English and remedial math because that's best for the children.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The court is expected to announce its decision by July.