May 2012 Church & State | People & Events

Americans United has weighed in on a legal challenge to vouchers in Indiana, urging a state appeals court to strike down a newly minted program that directs taxpayer dollars to religious schools.

Americans United in March filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Meredith v. Daniels, a case that challenges the legality of the Choice Scholarship Program. AU asked the Indiana Court of Appeals to find the program unconstitutional because public funds go almost exclusively to religious schools.

Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper said the program is an affront to religious liberty.

“This voucher program violates the religious liberty provisions in the Indiana Constitution,” Lipper said. “Those provisions have been in place since 1851, and they were intended to prevent the sort of massive taxpayer subsidy of religion at issue here.”

The Americans United brief, filed March 12, cites ample Indiana history to demonstrate that drafters of the Indiana Constitution wanted to build a strong public school system and bar use of taxpayer funds for religious schools.

In the brief, Americans United notes that Caleb Mills, a Christian minister and the state’s most prominent 19th-century proponent of strengthening public education, urged legislators to fund only public schools and warned that if taxpayer funds were used for denominational schools, it would jeopardize the social and political fabric.

“Proponents of the common schools not only sought to take affirmative steps to provide for a public education, but also recognized the need to prevent diversion of funds to private, religious schools,” the AU brief asserts. “Indeed, although he was himself a Christian minister, Caleb Mills warned convention delegates about the diversion of public funds to religious schools.”

The brief quotes Mills as saying, “Let every pious man and good citizen give his countenance, patronage and influence to the enterprise of elevating common schools to the highest point of improvement and then they will be good enough for every one and prove rich blessing to all.”

The ban on taxpayer assistance to religion was broad, the AU brief says, and did not target Catholic schools or any other specific religious community. Some state constitutions have provisions that critics describe as “Blaine amendments” – named for 19th-century U.S. Sen. James G. Blaine – that were allegedly aimed primarily at barring public funding for Catholic parochial schools.

The Indiana “no aid” provision, however, was passed in 1851, 24 years before Blaine introduced his amendment in Congress. AU’s brief reports that there is no indication that anti-Catholic sentiment played any role in the adoption of the Indiana church-state separation language.

Indiana’s voucher program, passed in 2011, is the broadest of its kind in the United States. It permits even parents of middle-class children to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools, the overwhelming majority of which are sectarian.

Nearly 98 percent of participating private schools are religious in character. Two-thirds are Catholic, with almost all of the rest coming from various Protestant perspectives. (Two participating schools are Islamic.)

A few days after AU filed the brief, the Indiana Supreme Court announced it would hear a direct appeal of the case, bypassing the need for an appellate court hearing. The Americans United brief and others that were filed will be automatically transferred to the Indiana Supreme Court.