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Public funds allowed for parochial use

The wall between church and state was further lowered Friday by a Supreme Court ruling that deaf parochial school students may be provided publicly funded sign-language interpreters.

Such aid benefits the child _ not the religious school _ and thus does not violate the constitutionally mandated separation of government and religion, the court ruled 5-4 in an Arizona case.

"When the government offers a neutral service on the premises of a sectarian school as part of a general program that is in no way skewed towards religion . . . that service does not offend the Establishment Clause," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.

The Constitution's First Amendment bars the government from "establishment of religion."

The justices said Tucson's Catalina Foothills School District was wrong in refusing in 1987 to pay for a sign-language interpreter for James Zobrest, a deaf student at Salpointe Catholic High School.

Providing publicly financed sign-language interpreters in religious schools would not create an incentive to attend such schools, Rehnquist wrote.

An interpreter is not the same as a teacher or guidance counselor but would merely "accurately interpret whatever material is presented to the class as a whole," the chief justice added.

Joseph Conn of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the ruling "is forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for religious indoctrination."