Supreme Court Upholds Cleveland Voucher Plan, Further Weakening Wall Between Church And State

Neas: Decision ‘Represents Serious Crack’ in Church-State Wall, Undermines Real Reform in Cleveland Public Schools

WASHINGTON – In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the Ohio law creating a private-school voucher program in Cleveland is constitutional. People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) President Ralph G. Neas voiced alarm at the Court’s ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. PFAWF served as co-counsel for the Ohio citizens who challenged the voucher law.

"This decision represents 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," said Neas. "Cleveland and other urban school systems are in tough financial straits. Giving this voucher program a 'green light' only makes that situation worse."

"The narrow margin of this decision is a sobering reminder that so much will be at stake when the next Supreme Court vacancy occurs," Neas added. "Predictably, Justices Scalia and Thomas were on the wrong side of this decision. If a like-minded justice were to join them on the Court, the integrity of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause would be in even more serious danger."

Meanwhile, legal concerns with vouchers are far from settled as many state constitutions set a higher standard for church-state separation. The next major legal challenge for vouchers is brewing in Florida, where a hearing is scheduled before a state court next month on the state’s voucher law. PFAWF is serving as co-counsel for a group of Florida residents challenging the law.

While the Supreme Court judged the voucher program to be constitutionally permissible, Neas said the American people have examined vouchers from a different perspective and come to their own conclusion.

"The Court has said that states can legally create a voucher program like this, but why would they?" he asked. "Unlike smaller class sizes and other proven reforms, vouchers haven't demonstrated that they can improve student learning. And they reach only a handful of students while draining millions of dollars from public schools and undercutting real reform. It's no wonder that in every state where they've been put to a vote, vouchers have been soundly defeated."

Michigan and California were the last two states in which voters, in November 2000, rejected voucher initiatives by decisive margins. Exit polls showed these initiatives were opposed by voters across the lines of race, ethnicity and gender. African-American and Hispanic voters opposed the voucher initiatives by at least a 2-to-1 margin.

"We know that the pro-voucher forces are likely to use this ruling to jump-start a new round of expensive campaigns to enact vouchers in various states," Neas continued. "But we firmly believe the public remains opposed to vouchers, and we are prepared to fight these efforts, state by state." Click here for a review of state voucher referenda.

During this past school year, about 4,300 students took part in the Cleveland program that diverts public tax dollars to pay for tuition at participating private schools, virtually all of which are religious. In today’s ruling, the Court reversed a decision rendered by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had ruled that the Cleveland program violated the First Amendment to the Constitution. Click here for an overview of the Cleveland voucher program.

Click here to review our other voucher research.

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