WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on an Arizona tax-credit program that allows donations for scholarships to religious schools, it announced May 24.
The high court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case during its next term, which begins in October. The court’s current term will end in late June or early July.
The justices will review an April 2009 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which deemed parts of the school-choice program as unconstitutional.
In 1997, the Arizona legislature passed a law enabling citizens to receive income tax credits for donations to private nonprofit “student tuition organizations” (STOs). Those organizations are required to provide at least 90 percent of their funds to private schools in the state.
Under the program, STOs have been established to fund specific kinds of schools, including religious ones. According to the Ninth Circuit Court, the two largest STOs are, in order, the Catholic Tuition Organization of the Diocese of Phoenix and the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO), which limits scholarships to use at evangelical Christian schools.
In overruling a federal court, the Ninth Circuit’s three-judge panel said the program “lacks religious neutrality and true private choice.” It breaches the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion, the appeals court ruled.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) appealed the opinion to the Supreme Court on behalf of ACSTO. It denied Arizona’s program violates the establishment clause, since it deals with private choices and donations. ADF asked the high court to overturn the Ninth Circuit decision because the foes of the program have suffered no injuries and have no legal standing to challenge it.
“This program is neutral; the state never touches the private money involved…,” ADF senior legal counsel David Cortman said in a written statement.
“Regardless of whether they are religious or non-religious, any type of private school can be legally funded by school tuition organizations, which distribute only private money,” Cortman said. “This type of funding does not become unconstitutional just because non-religious organizations have not taken as much initiative to make use of the opportunity.”
The Supreme Court not only granted the request for review from ADF but one from the state of Arizona as well. The cases — Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn and Garriott v. Winn — have been consolidated for the high school’s review.
The Supreme Court also announced May 24 it would review a decision in a case involving free exercise of religion under a federal law. The justices will rule in an appeal by a Texas prisoner who alleges his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) have been violated. The high court said it would limit its ruling to the issue of whether a person may sue a state or state official for damages under RLUIPA.
The inmate, Harvey Sossamon, brought suit against the state and several state authorities, contending he was barred from using the prison chapel. He also said the locations for worship presented as options did not have Christian symbols, such as a cross, and worship in those locations often was interrupted.
RLUIPA, which was enacted in 2000, prohibits government policies that substantially burden free exercise of religion by inmates and, in land-use cases, by a person or institution. The government, however, can gain an exemption from the law if it can show it has a “compelling interest” and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.