People For the American Way Foundation today is asking the Supreme Court to review and strike down the nation's largest school voucher program on grounds that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by advancing religion with public tax dollars.
In a petition filed before the Court, PFAWF and a number of other organizations that represent Wisconsin parents and citizens argue that a recent decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court upholding the voucher plan flies in the face of the Supreme Court's 1973 landmark decision Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist. That case involved a New York State voucher program that provided tuition reimbursements for children from low-income families who attended religious and other private schools. The Supreme Court struck down the New York program. "[T]he effect of the aid is unmistakably to provide desired financial support for nonpublic, sectarian institutions," the Court ruled.
"Tax dollars cannot be used to promote religion," said PFAWF President Carole Shields. "We are asking the Supreme Court to remind the Wisconsin politicians who voted to spend tax dollars to promote religion that they are not above the law of the land."
The Wisconsin voucher plan will allow up to $70 million during the 1998-99 school year to pay tuition for as many as 15,000 Milwaukee school students. The money for the vouchers comes from state aid that otherwise would have been used for public schools. As many as four-fifths of the schools opting into the program this fall are religious institutions.
A PFAWF analysis of the religious schools' mission statements shows their intent is not just to educate, but to proselytize. For instance, one school, Mother of Good Counsel School, states in its mission statement: "The center of our program at M.G.C. is religion. The emphasis is placed on Christian living and the life of Jesus… A formal religion program is taught in all homerooms."
Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People For the American Way Foundation, said that with voucher legislation pending or planned in many states and with court cases pending in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maine and Vermont, even voucher supporters have recognized the need for the Supreme Court to clarify what is and is not legal under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. For example, Clint Bolick, litigation director for the pro-voucher Institute for Justice has said that without a clear signal from the Court, voucher plans throughout the United States are operating under a "constitutional cloud."
"We seldom agree with Clint Bolick and the Institute for Justice on anything concerning vouchers, but we both agree that the Court should take this case," Mincberg said.
People For the American Way Foundation opposes vouchers not only for religious schools but also opposes them even for nonsectarian private schools, which educate the vast majority of students, because any vouchers weaken public schools by diverting sorely needed funding.
"In order for the debate to proceed on how to strengthen public schools, voucher proponents need to understand that under the Establishment Clause, tax dollars may not be used to promote the religious mission of a private school," Mincberg said.
Mincberg added that the Supreme Court could announce in October or November whether it will review the Wisconsin plan. "If the Court chooses not to review, that does not mean that the Court has given its blessing to the Wisconsin plan," Mincberg warned. "It simply means that the Court has chosen to wait for the issues to be more fully developed and defined in the lower courts."
In addition to its involvement in the Wisconsin case, People For the American Way Foundation is co-counsel in the Cleveland, Ohio and Southeast Delco, Pennsylvania voucher cases and has opposed vouchers throughout the United States. A key motion for judgment on the pleadings in the Southeast Delco case will be argued Wednesday, September 2, 1998.