WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 27 an education-choice program that permits vouchers to be used at religious schools is constitutional.
The decision, which came on a 5-4 vote, appears to be a landmark in the high court’s decision-making on educational aid and religion. It also could prove a watershed in the education of children in the country’s elementary and secondary schools.
The voucher program in the Cleveland, Ohio, school district “is entirely neutral with respect to religion,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion. The program “does not offend” the Constitution’s prohibition on government establishment of religion, he said.
The Supreme Court overturned an opinion by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program violated the separation of church and state, because most of the schools in which vouchers are used are religious ones.
The program allows a family to use a voucher of as much as $2,250 in state funds for tuition cost at the secular or religious private school of its choice. The Ohio legislature adopted the program in response to a massive failure of the Cleveland public schools to meet the state’s performance standards. Priority is given to low-income families. About 4,000 students use the vouchers in more than 50 private schools, most of them religious ones.
The constitutionality of an educational aid program is not dependent on how many students use the vouchers at religious schools, the high court said.
Citing three opinions during the last 20 years, Rehnquist said the court had made it clear “that where a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the establishment clause. The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual recipient, not to the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits.
“We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice . . . and thus constitutional,” Rehnquist wrote.
Reaction demonstrated the significance attached to the decision by both vouchers proponents and opponents.
“This is the most significant Supreme Court decision in terms of its impact on public education since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and I believe it will be a tremendously positive impact,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “It will empower parents, and it will force public schools to compete, in that they will no longer have a captive audience of the nation’s poor and working poor.”
The Institute for Justice, a Washington-based organization that represented Cleveland families receiving vouchers, said the ruling “makes good on the promise made nearly 50 years ago” in the Brown opinion.
“It marks a new beginning for children all across America who desperately need educational opportunities,” said Clint Bolick, the institute’s vice president. “The constitutional cloud over school choice is finally lifted.”
The Brown decision struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine and led to integration of the country’s public schools.
Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State called it “clearly the worst church-state decision in the past 50 years. The Supreme Court has taken a wrecking ball to the wall of separation between church and state. Unfortunately, the court has approved forcing taxpayers to pay for religious indoctrination.”
Ralph Neas of People for the American Way assailed the opinion as a “serious crack in the constitutional wall between church and state, and it’s especially troubling when part of that wall comes crumbling down on Cleveland’s public school children.”
Joining Rehnquist in the majority were Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
In a written statement, President Bush described the ruling as a “victory for parents and children throughout America. By upholding the constitutionality of Cleveland’s school-choice program, the Supreme Court has offered the hope of an excellent education to parents and children throughout our country.”
The Institute for Justice’s Bolick said he expects “major legislative efforts” on school choice at the federal and state levels in the next year. At least six states, including Colorado and Texas, should produce such efforts after the November elections, he said.
Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, criticized vouchers as “a divisive and expensive diversion” from public-school improvement. The NEA, he said, “will continue to fight for public schools and against vouchers — or related schemes to provide public funds to private and religious schools — at the ballot box, in state legislatures and in state courts.”
The ERLC’s Land said, “I’m sure they’re in catastrophe mode at the headquarters of the National Education Association. This is an enormous paradigm shift for the nation’s public education establishment. They’re going to have to compete for the nation’s children, and they’re going to have to meet performance standards. For some, that will be a truly shocking experience. ”
The court’s opinion supported the ERLC’s argument that government cannot discriminate against religion when it chooses to offer a benefit that can be used at other private institutions, Land said.
“Any other decision would be to affirm the rankest kind of discrimination against religion,” Land said. “This is a tremendous victory for the true religious liberty intent of our founding fathers. as well as for the nation’s children and their educational future.”
The ERLC signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief by the Christian Legal Society that defended the program. The Family Research Council and National Association of Evangelicals also joined in the brief.
The Baptist Joint Committee, which represented the Southern Baptist Convention on church-state issues until the early 1990s, signed onto a brief opposing the program. The BJC has long opposed vouchers.
In a written statement, BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said, “Government has no business subsidizing religion. It does no less by passing vouchers through the pockets of parents.
“We believe voucher programs are unconstitutional, despite what the Supreme Court said, and violate the historic Baptist understanding about the proper relationship between church and state,” Walker said.
“Essentially, the Supreme Court has decided that the ERLC position is right and the ACLU, Americans United, People for the American Way and the Baptist Joint Committee are wrong,” Land said. “It’s always satisfying to have the nation’s highest court agree with your understanding of the Constitution. Baptists everywhere should rejoice at this sane, just and correct understanding of the true intent of the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the Constitution.”