Judge Agrees with ACLU and Americans United's Challenge to Scheme that Used Taxpayer Funds to Pay Religious School Tuition
DENVER – A district court ruled today that a voucher plan adopted by the Douglas County School District violates the Colorado Constitution by diverting taxpayer money to pay students’ tuition at primarily religious, private schools. The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, the national American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenged the program on behalf of a group of parents, clergy and other taxpayers.
“The court correctly recognized that it is unconstitutional for the state to underwrite a child’s religious education,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director for the ACLU of Colorado. “Families who wish to send their children to a private school may do so, but not with government funds that may only be used to provide a free public education for Colorado’s children.”
The “Choice Scholarship Pilot Program,” offered tuition vouchers worth $4575 to 500 students to spend at private, mostly religious schools. For the purposes of obtaining state per-pupil educational funds, Douglas County still counted these children as “public school students” attending an imaginary school that exists only on paper. In reality, the voucher money was spent at district-approved “Private School Partners.” As of the filing of the lawsuit, 18 of the 23 approved Private School Partners are religious.
“By paying for students to attend religious schools, the state was unconstitutionally promoting and subsidizing particular faiths,” said Heather Weaver, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief “It’s particularly disturbing that the state would not only pay for students to attend these private institutions, but insist on continuing to count them as public school students. We are glad that the court put a stop to this misguided program.”
The lawsuit argues that the voucher plan violates the Colorado Constitution’s religious liberty provisions, which bar the appropriation of public funds to religious schools. The lawsuit also claims that the program violates Colorado constitutional provisions and statutes that require educational funds to pay for public education and remain under government control.
“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the voucher program illegally uses taxpayer money to promote religion and that it provides virtually no meaningful choice to families who don’t want to put their children in religious schools,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United. “It’s hardly a choice when the overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the program are religious.”
“When I pay my taxes, I want to be sure that my money is benefitting all Coloradans, not just those of a particular faith,” said plaintiff James LaRue. “This ruling confirms that our taxpayer dollars should be used to give all of Colorado’s schoolchildren an equal chance at a good education.”