Notre Dame may be looking good on the gridiron these days, but George W. Bush has to hope that the luck of the Irish holds in court. For if a new lawsuit targeting federal support for an innovative Notre Dame teacher-training program succeeds, it would put a major crimp in the president’s plans to mobilize America’s faith-based “armies of compassion.”p. The federal suit was filed last month by the American Jewish Congress against the Corporation for National Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps. Specifically, it alleges that AmeriCorps’ funding for Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and two similar programs amounts to taxpayer-supported “religious indoctrination” violating the Constitution.
Here’s how ACE works. In addition to pursuing their regular studies, ACE participants (who include students from other schools, secular as well as religious) spend their summers receiving training that stresses teaching as a vocation. Once they receive their baccalaureate degrees, they serve a two-year placement in needy parochial schools whose student bodies are primarily Latino, African-American or poor white.
Notre Dame’s aim is simple: Take the best and brightest, prepare them to teachand send them out to places where they are most needed.
So where do the federal dollars come in? Well, teachers who complete 1,700 hours of service in one year are eligible for a $4,725 AmeriCorps education award that can be applied to student loans or graduate work. Any time spent teaching religion does not count toward the hours needed for the AmeriCorps grant.
The point is that AmeriCorps is not funding religion; it is funding service and a master’s degree in education. And the Supreme Court has ruled that students who get professional training from religious universities cannot be relegated to second-class citizenship when it comes to government support simply because their training is delivered in a religious environment.
The moral case is stronger still. “I’m thrilled with the ACE teachers,” says Zandra Rutledge, whose two children attend St. Anthony’s, a parochial school south of Dallas with an almost all-black and non-Catholic student body. Mrs. Rutledge has no intention of converting to Catholicism but says that she is immensely grateful for the ACE ethos. “My son is a smart kid who needs to be challenged with a lot of work,” she says. “In other schools he’d be written off, but here they give him both the work and the patience.”
Certainly tax dollars for faith-based initiatives will raise sticky questions. But it helps to remember that ours is a Constitution designed to accommodate, not suppress, the religious expressions of the American people. And if you were the parent of an inner-city child, wouldn’t you like your son or daughter’s teacher to be someone who takes that bit about being their brother’s keeper to heart?