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Wisconsin high court upholds vouchers for religious schools

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Wisconsin Supreme Court handed the school-choice movement its most significant judicial victory to date June 10 when it declared a Milwaukee voucher program constitutional.
The state high court ruled in a 4-2 decision the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program’s inclusion of religious schools violates neither the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment nor the Wisconsin constitution. The opinion gives the go-ahead for a program that would permit as many as 15,000 children from low-income Milwaukee families to use vouchers at secular or religious private schools or in public schools.
“A bright new day just dawned for youngsters from low-income families,” said Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Washington-based Institute for Justice, which defended the program on behalf of Milwaukee families. “The constitutional cloud over school choice is giving way to sunshine.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which was a party to the lawsuit against the program, decried the decision.
“This decision forces taxpayers to support private religious education,” said Barry Lynn, AU’s executive director. “Anyone concerned with church-state separation should be shocked and disappointed.”
Among Baptist organizations, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs took opposing sides.
The ERLC signed onto 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 BJC has long maintained vouchers for religious schools violate the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause.
The state supreme court found no such church-state violation, saying the program is neutral between secular and religious options.
“[N]ot one cent flows from the state to a sectarian private school … except as a result of the necessary and intervening choices of individual parents,” Judge Donald Steinmetz wrote in the court’s opinion, according to The Washington Post.
An appeal is certain, but the court-approved Milwaukee program will go into effect this fall unless it is blocked by a higher court.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling reversed lower-court decisions. Last year, an Ohio appeals court struck down the inclusion of religious schools in Cleveland’s voucher program. In addition to Ohio, voucher cases are pending before the state supreme courts of Arizona, Maine and Vermont.
The Milwaukee program permitted vouchers for only secular schools when it was initiated in 1990. At the urging of Gov. Tommy Thompson, the Wisconsin legislature expanded the program to include religious schools in 1995.
On May 20, President Clinton vetoed a bill that would have provided vouchers for low-income children in the District of Columbia to attend private schools, including religious ones.