In a Colorado county, a slate of school board candidates who support public education over private school voucher schemes was elected Nov. 7 in a race closely watched on the national stage.
The four members of the CommUnity slate were elected to the Douglas County School Board, defeating a slate of four pro-voucher candidates and ending the existing pro-voucher board majority that first approved a voucher scheme in 2011.
Americans United and allies sued the school district when it launched the program to give up to 500 students as much as $4,575 each in taxpayer funds to attend private, mostly religious schools. The program has been tied up in the courts ever since.
In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed with AU that the program violated the Colorado Constitution’s provision that prevents public money from being used to fund religious entities. The board had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the matter; this summer, the high court sent the case back to the Colorado Supreme Court for more consideration in light of its decision in a case called Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer that allows government to fund ostensibly secular activities by houses of worship.
Anthony Graziano, a member of the pro-public-education slate, told the Denver Post the voucher program has been a “distraction” to the district.
The race saw an influx of hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars pour in for both sides and was closely watched amid the push by President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to expand federally funded vouchers.
Samuel J. Aquila, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Denver, and Michael J. Sheridan, bishop of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, also weighed in, penning an editorial in the Post that encouraged Douglas County residents to vote for pro-voucher candidates so that public money could fund religious schools.
Sheridan also authored a similar letter that was inserted into church bulletins, and the Colorado Catholic Conference produced a “voter guide” encouraging voters to elect pro-voucher candidates in Douglas County.
AU Communications Director Rob Boston, writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, noted the bishops’ actions walked a shaky line that may have violated the Johnson Amendment, the provision of federal tax law that protects the integrity of our elections and nonprofits, including houses of worship, by ensuring nonprofits don’t endorse or oppose political candidates.
“The activities by church officials in Colorado are questionable, to say the least, as they appear to be an effort by a tax-exempt nonprofit entity to affect the outcome of an election by encouraging church members to support a certain slate of candidates,” Boston wrote.