Federal funding for ACE program ruled unconstitutional

Author: Ed Cohen

The Notre Dame program that places recent grads in Catholic schools to teach for two years will have to get along without the support of the federal AmeriCorps program if a court ruling earlier this year stands.

In July a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Corporation for National and Community Service, parent of the AmeriCorps national service program, violated the principal of separation of church and state by financially supporting Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program and similar programs organized by religious institutions. The decision stemmed from a suit brought two years ago by the American Jewish Congress, which argued that tax dollars were being used to teach Christianity.

In a statement released soon after the ruling, Notre Dame said Supreme Court decisions have supported the constitutionality of funding religious institutions for work that doesn’t involve religion. The University said it planned to appeal the ruling. In adherence to the University’s general policy with active litigation, ACE officials declined to comment on the decision or describe the extent to which the program relies on AmeriCorps funds

Launched in 1994, ACE places mainly new Catholic graduates of Notre Dame into Catholic schools that are short of funds or Catholic teachers. Participants agree to teach in the schools for two years, during which time they earn a stipend from the school and live together in a house or apartment. They also take education courses at Notre Dame during consecutive summers leading to a master’s degree in education.

AmeriCorps, a Clinton administration initiative begun in 1994, awards tuition vouchers to people who participate in education-service programs. The vouchers total $4,725 for those who provide at least 1,700 hours of service. The service programs themselves also receive up to $400 a year per full-time participant.

ACE and the other service groups named in the suit believed sufficient restrictions existed to satisfy constitutional concerns. Applicants for vouchers have to submit time sheets spelling out how many hours they worked and in what type of service. Hours spent teaching religion, which ACE teachers sometimes do, can’t count toward the 1,700 hours.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler said that paying teachers in Catholic schools crossed "the vague but palpable line between permissible and impermissible government action under the First Amendment.