The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether taxpayer funds can be used to pay for computers, software and other library equipment in parochial schools. The court's ultimate ruling will likely influence the contentious nationwide debate over the use of publicly financed vouchers to help students attend religious schools.

Further fueling broad interest in the case, which will be heard by the court next fall and likely decided in 2000, is its relationship to the Clinton administration's proposal to connect all classrooms--in both public and private schools--to the Internet. Although the administration opposes the use of public vouchers to pay for religious schools, it has taken the other side in the case before the Supreme Court, supporting the New Orleans parochial school parents who have appealed a lower court's interpretation of federal education law that would bar such public high-tech assistance to religious schools.

At its broadest, the dispute will offer the court an opportunity to clarify its doctrine on the constitutional separation of church and state and provide guidance on permissible aid to religious schools. Although the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that federal funds could not be used to provide educational materials other than textbooks to religious schools, another appeals court, the 9th Circuit based on the West Coast, ruled the opposite.

The federal program at issue in Mitchell v. Helms flows from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which gives public school districts money for special services and instructional equipment and requires the funds to be shared with nonpublic schools within the district.

"This case vitally affects the quality of education available to over a million schoolchildren nationwide," the New Orleans parents said in their appeal to the Supreme Court. "Congress has wisely recognized that the national interest is served when all schoolchildren have access to supplementary educational resources and equipment in keeping with this fast-moving, technological age, without regard to whether their schools are public or private, religious or secular."

The taxpayers who have urged the high court to affirm the 5th Circuit say providing computers, software and other resource equipment beyond textbooks is unconstitutional because "it provides direct aid . . . [and] the items furnished are easily divertable to religious and sectarian school administrative purposes."

The 5th Circuit's 1998 decision relied primarily on Supreme Court rulings that have generally prohibited the government from providing educational materials other than textbooks to parochial schools. But in recent years, the Supreme Court has begun to permit more government support for and involvement in religious programs, for example, by permitting public school teachers to provide remedial help at parochial schools.

Separately, the court, over the lone dissent of Justice Clarence Thomas, refused to intervene in an ongoing case involving Columbia Union College in Takoma Park. The college, affiliated with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, is seeking financial aid under a Maryland state program that provides financial assistance to private colleges, but the Maryland Higher Education Commission has concluded that Columbia Union is "too religious" to participate. A federal appeals court has ordered an investigation to determine whether the school is "pervasively sectarian" and thus ineligible for the state aid. (Columbia Union College v. Clark)