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Court to rule on aid for religious schools
Justices also OK gambling ads; say Libya still liable

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether computers and other instructional materials paid for with taxpayer money can be used by religious schools, an issue that may determine the scope of federal efforts to connect every American classroom to the Internet.

Setting the stage for its first church-state ruling of the new millennium, the nation's highest court said it will review a 14-year-old Louisiana dispute over public aid to parochial schools.Its eventual decision, expected sometime in 2000, also could affect the constitutional debate over school vouchers -- financial help from the government for families whose children attend religious and other private schools.

In other action, the court:

Unanimously struck down the federal government's effort to protect compulsive gamblers from the lure of some casinos, ruling that a ban on television and radio advertising violates free-speech rights.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the ban "may not be applied to advertisements of private casino gambling that are broadcast by radio or television stations in Louisiana, where such gambling is legal."

Refused to spare Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry and other anti-abortion activists from nearly $600,000 in fines and lawyer fees stemming from a campaign to blockade New York City area abortion clinics a decade ago.

Refused to free Libya from a U.S. lawsuit seeking billions of dollars in damages for that nation's alleged role in sponsoring the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, which killed 270 people.

Said, in a unanimous ruling, lawyers sanctioned by a federal judge for misconduct cannot appeal the penalty until the case is over, even if they no longer are involved in the dispute.

A New Orleans-based federal appeals court struck down a federal program last year by ruling that providing educational materials other than textbooks for religiously affiliated elementary and secondary schools violates the constitutionally required separation of government and religion.

The same program, which makes federal money available through local school districts, has been upheld by a San Francisco-based federal appeals court.

"This cases involves the vital interests of American schoolchildren in obtaining access to modern technological equipment and materials," the court was told. "Millions of students nationwide, including over a million attending religiously affiliated schools, receive benefits under the program."

Overall, the federal government provides about 7 percent of the money states spend on education. That percentage is significantly higher in poorer states.

The federal program at issue in the Louisiana case is authorized by one part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provides public schools with money for special services and instructional equipment. Public school districts are required to share the equipment in a "secular, neutral and nonideological" way with students enrolled in private schools within their boundaries.

In the appeal acted on Monday, lawyers for the parents of parochial school students argued that more recent Supreme Court rulings have blunted, if not obliterated, the effect of the court's parochial-aid decisions in 1975 and 1977.