Douglas County “Scholarships” Divert Public Funds to Religious Schools
December 10, 2014
DENVER – Attorneys representing civil liberties and taxpayer organizations, including the ACLU of Colorado, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Taxpayers for Public Education, argued before the Colorado State Supreme Court today that a Douglas County voucher program that provides public education funds to private religious schools is unconstitutional and should be struck down by the Court.
Matt Douglas of Arnold & Porter LLP, arguing for the plaintiffs, highlighted the Colorado Constitution’s “specific prohibition” on government funds going to schools that are controlled by churches or religious organizations, and Michael McCarthy of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, representing Taxpayers for Public Education, argued that the Colorado Public School Finance Act forbids using public funds to subsidize tuition payments for students who are attending private schools.
Douglas County’s so-called “Choice Scholarship Pilot Program” offered tuition vouchers worth $4,575 to 500 students to spend at religious and other private schools. For the purposes of obtaining state per-pupil educational funds, Douglas County created a public charter school, which exists only on paper, and enrolled students in the non-existent charter school. In reality, students were set to attend one of 23 district-approved “Private School Partners,” and the voucher money would be paid to those private schools. As of the filing of the lawsuit, 18 of the 23 approved Private School Partners were religious schools.
“Parents are free to send their children to a private religious school if they wish, but Colorado taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein.
The groups filed a lawsuit challenging the voucher program in 2011. A lower court agreed with their position and struck down the program, but the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in favor of Douglas County in February 2013. In March 2014, the Colorado Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case.
In a brief filed with the Supreme Court earlier this year, the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote that the program, if allowed to stand, would “eviscerate core provisions of the religion and education clauses of the Colorado Constitution, restrict citizens’ ability to enforce the Public School Finance Act, and give school districts around the state carte blanche to implement similar programs, with potentially devastating consequences for the State’s constitutionally mandated public-school system.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Matt Douglas, Timothy R. Macdonald, and Michelle K. Albert of Arnold & Porter LLP; Ayesha N. Khan and Alex J. Luchenitser of Americans United; Heather Weaver and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; and Mark Silverstein and Sara Rich of the ACLU of Colorado.
Visit the ACLU case page with corresponding legal documents: https://aclu-co.org/court-cases/la-rue-v-colorado-board-of-education/