By Bob Allen
The Colorado Supreme Court struck down a school voucher program June 29, saying it violates the state constitution’s ban on using public money to fund religious schools.
Overturning a lower-court decision, the Supreme Court said the Douglas County School District — the state’s third-largest school district located south of Denver — cannot administer its “Choice Scholarship Pilot Program.”
On hold since its launch four years ago, the program provided up to 500 scholarships that qualifying elementary, middle, and high school students can use to help pay their tuition at partnering private schools.
At the time a lawsuit challenging the program went to trial, 16 of the 23 schools participating in the program were religious in nature, and about 93 percent of the scholarship recipients had enrolled in religious schools.
The Supreme Court said the program violates “broad, unequivocal language forbidding the state from using public money to fund religious schools.”
Defenders of the voucher program argued that the constitution’s ban on taxpayer funding of “sectarian” schools is a code word for “Catholic,” describing the section as a “Blaine Amendment” — state laws that allegedly rose out of anti-Catholic bigotry after a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution proposed by Republican Congressman James G. Blaine in 1875 failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the Senate.
Colorado’s justices said whatever the history, they are bound to enforce constitutional provisions as written whenever their language is plain and their meaning is clear. “The term ‘sectarian’ plainly means ‘religious.’ Therefore, we will enforce Section 7 as it is written,” they ruled.
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty joined other faith groups in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Colorado high court to rule the voucher plan unconstitutional.
“Programs like the Choice Scholarship Program encroach on religious liberty by making religion dependent on government, by encouraging sectarian division and strife, and by interfering with free, individual choice in matters of conscience,” the brief argued. “Accordingly, the voucher program should be struck down as inconsistent with the plain language and spirit of the No-Aid Clause.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado all joined in applauding the decision.
“It is unconstitutional to bankroll religious schools with public funds,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “But that is precisely what would have happened in Douglas County had the Colorado Supreme Court ruled otherwise.”
Douglas County school officials will likely appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Denver Post.