Rehnquist & Co.: School's Out Till Next Year

They're turning away a controversial case, but the Justices will rule on federal funding to religious schools

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Reading the Supreme Court's dismissal of appeals can be a lot like reading tea leaves — only slightly less scientific. The conjecture heated up on Monday, when the Justices dismissed an appeal from a group of Vermont parents whose case includes some of the most controversial aspects of the school voucher debate. At present, Vermont, which has a 130-year tradition of tuition reimbursement to students who attend secular private high schools when there is no public high school in their district, does not extend that reimbursement to parents who choose, under the same circumstances, to send their kids to religious private schools. The plaintiff parents claim their children's religious freedom is violated by the state's refusal to help pay for religious schooling; last June, Vermont's Supreme Court ruled that funding such schooling would violate the state's constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state.

But the rejection of this appeal may not be much of a weathervane when it comes to the Justices' final take on the topic, says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen. "When the Supreme Court decides not to take a case, you can't really tell what the impetus may be," he says. As Cohen notes, the court already has a religious-school case on its docket, and may be unwilling to take on another — the Justices are expected to rule by next summer whether religious schools in Louisiana can receive federal funding for computers and educational materials. That case, notes Cohen, will be closely watched: "Separation of church and state is one of the thorniest issues facing this court," he says, and to date, the Justices have given some indication that they may not agree with the precedents of the 1960s and '70s — most of which dictated a very clear-cut division between the two entities.