Jun 21, 2011

Three civil liberties organizations filed suit today in Denver District Court to challenge a school voucher plan adopted by the Douglas County School District.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of a group of parents, clergy and other taxpayers who oppose the program’s effort to divert taxpayer money to primarily religious, private schools.

Through its “Pilot Choice Scholarship Plan,” the district plans to designate up to 500 children as “public school students” in order to obtain state per-pupil educational funds, which are earmarked for the public school system. The district then plans to use the taxpayer dollars to subsidize the students’ tuition at approved “Private School Partners.”

As of the filing of the lawsuit, 14 of the approved 19 Private School Partners are religious. Only three of the five non-religious Private School Partners are open to all students, and they do not offer education beyond the eighth grade.

Highlighting the religious liberty concerns raised by the program, Americans United for Separation of Church and State Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, explained, “Vouchers are nothing more than a backdoor way of forcing taxpayers to support religious schools. Douglas County’s reckless plan threatens church-state separation and public education and should be struck down.”

Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director, said, “This lawsuit challenges a scheme to violate the letter and spirit of Colorado school finance statutes as well as state constitutional provisions governing public education and religious liberty. The school district will collect money from the state of Colorado and deliver some of those funds to private schools to subsidize students’ tuition payments. Thus, taxpayer funds allocated for public education will be diverted from their intended purpose. We are asking the court to stop this misguided program before it goes any further.”

The LaRue v. Colorado Board of Education lawsuit argues that the voucher plan violates the Colorado Constitution’s religious liberty provisions, which bar the appropriation of public funds to religious schools. The lawsuit also claims that the program violates Colorado constitutional provisions and statutes that require educational funds to pay for public education and remain under government control.

Heather L. Weaver, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, agreed. “While families have the right to decide where their children should attend school, the state cannot finance religious education at private institutions,” she said. “Public education funds should be dedicated to improving our public schools, not promoting and subsidizing religion in violation of the State Constitution.”

The lawsuit asks the Court to enjoin the program and declare it unlawful. As summed up by plaintiff James LaRue, “This program harms both religious liberty and public education. Douglas County and Colorado citizens deserve better in both regards.”

In addition to the school district, the Colorado Board of Education and the Colorado Department of Education, which assisted the district in developing the program and have approved the misguided financial arrangement, are named as defendants.

The Plaintiffs are represented by Silverstein and Rebecca T. Wallace of the ACLU of Colorado; Ayesha N. Khan and Gregory M. Lipper of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Weaver and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; and Matthew J. Douglas, Timothy R. Macdonald, Michelle K. Albert, Paul Alexander, and George Langendorf of Arnold & Porter LLP, cooperating counsel.