Dec 20, 1999

A federal judge in Ohio today declared Cleveland's controversial private school voucher program unconstitutional, an action that drew strong support from Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., ruling on a motion for summary judgment, said the plan violates the separation of church and state because it directs taxpayer dollars into the coffers of religious schools.

"This decision is a powerful rebuke to those who believe the government can force taxpayers to support churches or church schools," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, one of the groups sponsoring the case. "The message from the courts is clear: It's time to quit wasting time with these unconstitutional schemes and find real ways to improve public education."

Lynn noted that the Ohio decision marks the second time this year that a federal court has declared vouchers unconstitutional. In addition, state supreme courts in Maine and Vermont struck down vouchers this year.

Americans United and other civil liberties and educational groups filed suit against the Cleveland voucher program last July, charging that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Oliver had earlier issued a temporary restraining order placing the program on hold, but the U.S. Supreme Court later said the plan could proceed while the legal challenge continues.

Ohio's Pilot Project Scholarship Program, which was passed into law by legislators in 1995, issues vouchers of up to $2,500 for Cleveland students to attend religious and other private schools. The lawsuit, Simmons-Harris v. Zelman, was filed on behalf of three parents and taxpayers by Americans United and the other organizations.