Dec 11, 2000

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down Cleveland's private religious school voucher program, holding that tax aid to religious schools violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which helped bring the lawsuit challenging the program, described the decision as a monumental victory for religious freedom, public schools and church-state separation.

"This is a great early Christmas present for America's public schools and our constitutional principles," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This means that taxpayer money will not be diverted from public schools to private religious schools."

A coalition of education and civil liberties groups challenged the 5-year-old Cleveland voucher program in federal court in July 1999. Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver ruled against the program, concluding that public funding of private religious education ran afoul of the First Amendment's separation of church and state. Today's 2-1 ruling upholds that decision.

If voucher supporters appeal today's Simmons-Harris v. Zelman ruling, it would give the U.S. Supreme Court an opportunity to directly address the voucher issue for the first time.

"If the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear an appeal of this case, it would set the stage for an historic showdown," said AU's Lynn. "This will be the most important case about public schools and church-state separation in decades."

Today's decision insisted that the Ohio voucher program "clearly has the impermissible effect of promoting sectarian schools."

"To approve this program," the court majority ruled, "would approve the actual diversion of government aid to religious institutions in endorsement of religious education, something 'in tension' with the precedents of the Supreme Court."

The court added, "This scheme involves the grant of state aid directly and predominantly to the coffers of the private, religious schools, and it is unquestioned that these institutions incorporate religious concepts, motives, and themes into all facets of their educational planning. There is no neutral aid when that aid principally flows to religious institutions; nor is there truly 'private choice' when the available choices resulting from the program design are predominantly religious."

The 6th Circuit's decision is the latest in a long line of setbacks for voucher advocates. Last year, another federal appellate court struck down a voucher-like program in Maine. The State Supreme Courts of Vermont, Maine and Puerto Rico have also declared voucher programs unconstitutional.

In addition, voucher supporters have been rebuffed repeatedly by voters. Last month, voters in Michigan and California overwhelmingly defeated voucher ballot initiatives. Despite massive spending by voucher advocates, both measures were defeated by better than 2-1 margins. No voucher referendum put before voters has ever passed.

"Sooner or later, voucher proponents will have to realize that the law is not on their side -- and neither is public opinion," said Lynn. "Americans must never be forced to support private religious education, and the appellate court wisely supported that principle today."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.