THE SUPREME COURT this week, in cases involving school systems in Grand Rapids and New York, significantly restricted the use of public funds for educational programs in private and religious schools. On the difficult matter of balancing the needs of the nation's children -- wherever they go to school -- and the constraints imposed by the First Amendment, the court correctly applied the tests required by the Constitution.

In the Michigan case the issue was clearly drawn, and the stakes were high. If the system in place in Grand Rapids had been validated, school systems across the country would have been free to provide substantial assistance to religious schools; in many places, there would have been great pressure to do so. In Grand Rapids, public school teachers had been provided to teach remedial and supplementary courses in 41 private schools -- 40 religiously affiliated. The city paid rent to the private schools for the classroom space used for the program. Taxpayers also funded "community education programs" taught by private school teachers in their own schools for students who desired additional courses at the conclusion of the regular school day. It is hard to imagine a clearer public subsidy of religious schools. Every federal court that reviewed the arrangement declared it to be unconstitutional.

The New York case, on which lower courts were divided, challenged the city's use of federal funds earmarked to meet the needs of children from low-income families. For 19 years, New York had used some of this money to pay public-school employees to teach such children in parochial schools. The city had adopted a system for monitoring the programs to be sure that the classes in question were free of all religious content. But the Supreme Court held that even this attempt to ensure neutrality "would require a permanent and pervasive state presence in the sectarian schools" -- a presence causing the excessive entanglement between church and state that the First Amendment was designed to prohibit. It is possible that federal Title I funds can still be used to aid low-income children attending parochial schools in some less direct manner, but providing teachers to work inside the religious schools will not be permitted.

Justice Byron White, who dissented in both cases, believes these rulings "are not required by the First Amendment and are contrary to the long-range interests of the country." The majority, though, is equally concerned about the rights of church schools to be free of government interference, and the rights of taxpayers to be free of the burden of subsidizing sectarian education. These two decisions will preserve the separation of church and state that enables each to flourish independenly and to play its distinctive role in American society.