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Court to Rule on Vocational Aid for Blind Bible Student

April 02, 1985|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, entering a novel dispute over the separation of church and state, agreed Monday to decide whether a blind student who is in training to become a minister may be denied state financial aid on the grounds that it would improperly promote religion.

The justices said that next term they will hear a potentially far-reaching case in which a handicapped Bible college student was barred by Washington state authorities from receiving vocational rehabilitation assistance.

The new case could set new guidelines for when--if ever--a state may be required to provide aid to religious schools or their students. In two cases scheduled for rulings by this summer, the court is already planning to decide whether governmental bodies may, when they wish, give such aid.

Upheld by State Court

In the Washington case, state officials argued that, under the U.S. Constitution, a state may not be forced to spend tax dollars to support the education and training of ministers. The Washington state Supreme Court agreed with the state's contention last fall that state aid would advance religion.

Attorneys for the blind student urged the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling, arguing that it could undermine the GI Bill and other programs that have permitted beneficiaries to attend theological institutions.

In the case, which the court will decide next year, Larry Witters, a blind student, enrolled as a student at Inland Empire School of the Bible in Spokane with the aim of becoming a pastor, missionary or Christian youth director. He sought aid under a state-run program providing vocational training for blind persons. But a state commission turned down the request, concluding that public money should not be used for religious purposes.

Employment, Not Religion

After Witters lost his appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, his lawyers brought the case (Witters vs. Washington Commission for the Blind, 84-1070) to the justices, saying that the state had violated his right to equal protection of the law and the free exercise of religion. They contended that the effect of the rehabilitation program was to prepare the handicapped for employment--not to promote religion.

In reply, state attorneys argued that while the states are sometimes permitted to aid students in religious schools, there is no precedent for requiring them to finance the training of ministers. The denial of aid did not prevent Witters from becoming a minister nor otherwise interfere with his constitutional rights, the state said.

In other action Monday, the court:

--Agreed to review a New Jersey case with important implications for police interrogations, saying that it will decide whether an officer impermissibly tricked a murder suspect into confessing by telling him he was "not a criminal" and would receive psychiatric care if he told the truth. At issue in the case (Miller vs. Fenton, 84-5786) is how far police may go to obtain confessions by trying to gain the confidence of suspects, a widely recognized tactic in such questioning.

Agreed to Answer

The suspect, Frank Miller Jr., was warned of his right to counsel and to silence but agreed to answer questions by investigators about the murder of a 17-year-old girl. At one point during the 58-minute interrogation, an officer remarked: "I don't think you're a criminal, Frank." Miller replied: "No, but you're trying to make me one."

Finally, assured of psychiatric help, Miller confessed and later was convicted. On appeal, his lawyers contended that Miller's will was overcome by the officers' "deceit, trickery and promises of help" that left him sobbing, distraught and unstable. Lawyers for the state of New Jersey contended that Miller had been fully advised of his rights and was not forced to confess.

--Let stand, without comment, a ruling requiring Texas A&M University to grant official recognition to a gay student organization (Texas A&M vs. Gay Students Services, 84-724). The university had refused recognition on the grounds it would promote homosexual activity and result in "physical, psychological and disease ramifications" for the student body.

Ruled Not Justified

A federal appeals court in New Orleans said last August that the university's reasons for banning the group did not justify the infringement of First Amendment rights.

--Announced it was deadlocked, 4 to 4, in two cases in which the ninth court member, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., did not participate during recuperation from surgery in January. One of the two cases (Oklahoma vs. Castleberry, 83-2126) could have helped clarify the circumstances in which officers, without warrants, may conduct automobile searches. As in all such tie votes, the justices' action affirms the lower court ruling but does not set a binding national precedent.

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