October 2015 Church & State | People & Events

Three civil liberties organizations, including Americans United, recently filed suit in a Nevada court to challenge a school voucher program signed into law in June by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United sued Aug. 27 on behalf of a group of parents, clergy and others who oppose the program’s effort to divert taxpayer money to private, religious schools.

“Nevada’s Constitution makes clear that the state may not fund religious instruction or religious discrimination,” said Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, in a media release. “The voucher program flouts this constitutional prohibition. Nevada’s parents, students and taxpayers deserve better.”

Added Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, “Parents have a right to send their children to religious schools, but they are not entitled to do so at taxpayers’ expense. The voucher program violates the Nevada Constitution’s robust protections against the use of public funds for religious education.”

Under the program, which would be among the largest voucher schemes in the nation if left in place, parents of students enrolled in public school for at least 100 days may transfer their children to participating private schools, including religious schools, and would be eligible to receive about $5,000 in public education funds to pay for tuition, textbooks and other costs. The funds will be disbursed through so-called “Education Savings Accounts,” and there are no restrictions on how participating schools can use the money.

The Duncan v. Nevada lawsuit argues that the funding scheme violates Article XI, Section 10, of the Nevada Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for any sectarian purpose. The lawsuit also claims that the program runs afoul of Article XI, Section 2, which requires the legislature to “provide for a uniform system of common schools.”

“The voucher program will use taxpayer dollars for religious education and indoctrination at a number of religious schools, many of which discriminate in admissions and employment,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The program would be a huge loss for religious liberty if implemented.”

Among the Plaintiffs represented by the three groups is Ruby Duncan, a mother, grandmother and longtime civil rights activist and the namesake for the Ruby Duncan Elementary School in Las Vegas. Rabbi Mel Hecht, Howard Watts III, Leora Olivas and Adam Berger are also plaintiffs in the suit. All object to the use of their taxes to fund private religious schools.