Thursday, March 26, 2009

Associated Baptist Press - 3/26/2009

Associated Baptist Press
March 26, 2009 · (09-43)

David Wilkinson, Executive Director
Robert Marus, Managing Editor/Washington Bureau Chief
Bob Allen, Senior Writer

In this issue
Arizona high court declares state's voucher program unconstitutional (532 words)
Alabama Baptists headed to court over property dispute (641 words)
Correction

Arizona high court declares state's voucher program unconstitutional
By Robert Marus (532 words)

PHOENIX (ABP) -- The Arizona Supreme Court March 25 delivered the latest in a string of blows to the movement to provide tax funding for tuition at private and religious schools.

A unanimous five-member court said a plain reading of a provision in the Arizona Constitution outlaws two small programs that provided publicly funded vouchers that students could use to attend private and parochial schools. One program was for students with disabilities; another served children in foster care.

"The voucher programs appear to be a well-intentioned effort to assist two distinct student populations with special needs. But we are bound by our constitution," wrote Justice Michael Ryan in the court's Cain v. Horne opinion. "There may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution. But, absent a constitutional amendment, because the Aid Clause does not permit appropriations of public money to private and sectarian schools, the voucher programs violate Article 9, Section 10 of the Arizona Constitution."

The decision affects about 475 students, who will continue to receive the vouchers until the end of this school year. Unless Arizona voters approve a constitutional amendment to undo the ban on aid to religious institutions, the programs will end.

Attorneys for the state had argued that the Arizona Constitution provision in question -- which bans any public appropriation "in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation" -- should be interpreted the way that the federal Supreme Court has interpreted the religion clauses of the First Amendment. In 2002, a divided court OK'd an Ohio school-voucher program, saying indirect aid to religious schools did not violate the Constitution's ban on government support for religion.

But the Arizona court agreed with attorneys for religious-liberty and public-school advocates, saying the state's charter provides more specific guidance than the federal Constitution on indirect government aid to religious institutions.

Parents with children in the program intervened in the case on its behalf. One of them, Andrea Weck, told the Arizona Republic that the scholarships had enabled her to enroll her autistic daughter in a small private school for children with learning disabilities. "The opportunity created by the scholarship program changed Lexie from the inside out," Weck said.

Voucher programs -- once hailed by education reformers as a way to rescue kids in failing public-school systems and encourage competition that would improve such schools -- have proven unpopular both at the ballot box and in state courts. Voters in California and Utah recently rebuffed statewide voucher programs, and the highest courts in Maine and Florida have cited similar provisions of their states' charters to prohibit vouchers for religious schools. In early March, Congress voted to discontinue funding for an experimental voucher program in the District of Columbia.

Public-school advocates as well as supporters of strong church-state separation have long opposed voucher programs that include religious schools, saying they violate the spirit of the First Amendment.

Many other states have constitutional provisions similar to Arizona's. In the 2004 Locke v. Davey decision, the federal Supreme Court said that states could use such provisions to provide a higher bar on government aid to religious institutions than the Constitution requires.

Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.

Alabama Baptists headed to court over property dispute
By Bob Allen (641 words)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (ABP) -- Alabama Baptists are going to court to resolve a dispute with Montgomery, Ala., homeowners whom Baptist leaders claim are unreasonably hindering development of land the state convention is trying to sell

The Alabama Baptist newspaper reported recently that the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions voted Feb. 23 to seek a declarative judgment against a homeowners' association. The homeowners are in a subdivision that neighbors property the state convention purchased more than 20 years ago as a building site for future relocation of the state's Baptist Building.

Two years ago the convention voted to instead sell the land in the eastern part of Alabama's capital city and use proceeds to purchase cheaper property more centrally located for anticipated future building needs.

According to the Alabama Baptist, state convention Associate Executive Director Bobby DuBois told board members that a year of negotiations with homeowners in the Halcyon Forest subdivision had reached a stalemate, forcing Alabama Baptists to decide whether to walk away from the deal or assert the convention's rights in court.
Rusty Sowell, chairman of the state board's properties committee, said he believed it is in Alabama Baptists' best interest to "sell this property when we have a signed contract."

Deed restrictions on developing the land reportedly require approval by the association's architectural review committee, but specify that such approval cannot be "unreasonably withheld."

Baptist leaders said they offered concessions worth $1.7 million to seek ways to allow a developer to build properties including a four-story hotel, two upscale restaurants and two small retail centers, but the homeowners' association turned them down.

State convention leaders voted overwhelmingly, with only a smattering of opposition, to take the homeowners to court.

A resident of Halcyon Forest charged in a letter to the editor in the Montgomery Advertiser, however, that some information given at the State Board of Missions meeting was false.

Larry Cornwell said board members were misled into believing Baptists had satisfied the homeowners' concerns about hotel windows overlooking their backyards and that the association was unreasonable to oppose a four-story hotel on property zoned for two-story buildings.

According to the Alabama Baptist report, one board member who owns a home in the subdivision said he thought it would be better for Alabama Baptists to walk away from the deal.

Mickey Castleberry, retired pastor of Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Montgomery, said he had mixed feelings because he voted in 2007 to sell the property. But he said he understands why neighbors wouldn't want strangers in hotel rooms peering down at children playing in backyard swimming pools.

Castleberry said the arrangement would also comprise Alabama Baptists' witness against alcohol use by knowingly selling to a builder seeking to build restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages.

According to archived stories in the Alabama Baptist, the state convention in 1986 purchased just less than 14 acres of land near the intersection of Interstate 85 and Taylor Road for a little more than $1 million. The purchase was made with an eye to a future building for the convention's headquarters.

In 2007, Baptist leaders determined the plot was at peak value and costing more than $17,000 a year in property taxes, so they decided to sell it. They authorized the purchase of a smaller parcel north of the city along the Interstate 65 corridor -- more centrally located in terms of the entire state.

Baptist leaders said the state convention had no immediate plans to move its headquarters from the current Alabama Baptist Convention State Board of Missions Building at 2001 E. South Boulevard in the southern part of Montgomery, but they were planning ahead for future building needs.

Plans called for using any profit from the sale of the Taylor Road property to pay for a new site, with remaining funds being invested to help fund construction of any future headquarters building.

Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.

Correction

ABP wrongly attributed a March 19 opinion piece, "Global Baptists issue pledge at peace conference," to Ken Sehested, a participant at the gathering. While Sehested helped develop some of the language, he wasn't the primary author. The statement was in fact approved at the close of the meeting by the entire body as an official statement for distribution to Baptist bodies.

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