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Supreme Court again refuses to hear school-choice challenge

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review a ruling upholding Arizona’s tax credit for contributions to religious school scholarship funds, marking the second time in a year the justices have refused to consider a challenge to a state’s education-choice program.
The high court announced Oct. 4 it would not hear an appeal of a January decision by the Arizona Supreme Court, which found the state’s tax credit for private schools, including religious ones, is constitutional. The high court’s refusal means the law remains in effect in Arizona but is not binding in other states.
Last November, the high court also declined a challenge to Wisconsin’s school-choice program. That state’s supreme court had upheld a plan that permitted children from low-income Milwaukee families to use vouchers at secular or religious private schools.
The Arizona plan allows a tax credit of up to $500 for a donation to a school tuition organization, which grants scholarships to students attending private schools, including religious ones. In 1998, the organizations included, among others, the Northern Arizona Christian Scholarship Fund, the Lutheran Education Foundation and the Catholic Tuition Organization. These funds must give scholarships to students in more than one school. Parents may not designate gifts for their children.
About $75 million a year could be provided to private schools in Arizona as a result of the program, according to The Washington Times.
“This is a major victory for the children of Arizona,” said Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Washington-based Institute for Justice, in a written release. “Because of the court’s action today, thousands of students will be afforded high-quality educational opportunities they would otherwise be denied.
“The Arizona Supreme Court’s decision will now resonate widely as a major First Amendment precedent. Clearly, the momentum remains on the side of school-choice supporters,” Bolick said.
The Institute for Justice argued in support of the program before the Arizona Supreme Court and has defended education-choice programs in seven other states.
The court’s latest decision, plus its refusal to hear a challenge of the Wisconsin voucher program, “clearly signals that our nation’s highest court does not view properly structured efforts to support parents’ full range of educational choices — including choosing parochial education — as unconstitutional,” said Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America in a written statement. “We look forward to the Supreme Court’s decisions in this new term further strengthening this principle.”
Opponents of school choice did not voice as much consternation with the high court’s decision as they normally do with pro-voucher rulings in lower courts.
“Frankly, [the Arizona case] was not one we expected them to take” for review, said Joseph Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The court already has scheduled oral arguments in a case from Louisiana on aid to religious schools. That case, Mitchell v. Helms, will test whether federal aid can be used to purchase computers and other materials for religious and other private schools. The case is scheduled for Dec. 1.
That case “will give us a good preview” of how the court might rule on vouchers for religious schools, Conn said.
The most noteworthy voucher programs yet to reach the high court are those in Ohio and Florida.
While public support for education choice has grown in recent years, it remains a controversial issue in America and, to at least some extent, among Southern Baptists, who increasingly have become supportive of school choice. Many Southern Baptists, however, traditionally have opposed vouchers on church-state grounds, and now some oppose them out of concern for the religious school’s autonomy.
In the Wisconsin case, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief with the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod supporting the Milwaukee program. The brief argued the exclusion of religious schools from a voucher program for only secular private schools would constitute discrimination against religion, while inclusion of religious schools would not violate church-state separation.
The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the SBC’s church-state representative in Washington prior to the 1990s, has long maintained vouchers for religious schools violate the First Amendment’s establishment-of-religion clause.