Cleveland mom Dorris Simmons-Harris didn't start out to make legal history. She was just looking for a fair shake for her son.
The year was 1995, and Ohio legislators had just enacted a voucher bill aimed at Cleveland residents. The law-makers talked a good line, telling parents of inner-city children attending troubled public schools that they would receive an education at religious and other private schools at state expense.
Simmons-Harris was skeptical and believed that her son, who suffers from a learning disability, would not be welcomed with open arms at the private schools that were suddenly being showered with tax dollars.
"I was discussing with some friends of mine about the voucher [program], how it doesn't help all children," Simmons-Harris said. "Special-needs children are left behind."
Simmons-Harris was especially angry because the voucher program would siphon money away from already strapped public schools. "The public schools need that money," she said.
But Simmons-Harris did more than just gripe. She agreed to serve as lead plaintiff in a lawsuit designed to end the program as an unconstitutional violation of separation of church and state, and now she will make legal history. On Sept. 25, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will hear Simmons-Harris' case.
Legal observers say the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision could be a blockbuster. For the first time, the high court has agreed to face the issue of vouchers head on. The repercussions from the court's ruling could be wide-ranging, either slamming the door on vouchers for good or opening up a new era of government-funded religion in the United States.
Just minutes after the high court announcement, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told reporters, "This is probably the most important church-state case in the last half-century. It will be a historic showdown over government funding of religion."
Lynn added that Americans United, which helped bring the challenge to the Ohio plan, will urge the justices to strike down the voucher scheme. "Voucher programs force taxpayers to put money in the collection plates of churches," he said. "The court should never permit this to happen. The justices should uphold church-state separation and rule forcefully against this reckless scheme."
Legal observers agree that the dispute bears close watching. "Aside from threatening the continued viability of our public schools, a pro-voucher decision by the Supreme Court would give a significant practical and legal boost to the `faith-based initiatives' being proposed," said Ayesha Khan, Americans United legal director. "Such a decision would blow a hole through the wall that separates church and state."
Steven K. Green, former legal director for Americans United and a leading national authority on the church-state implications of vouchers, concurs. "This case is likely the most important private school funding case in more than 50 years," he said. "It could authorize massive funding of religious and parochial schools through the side door. Other funding programs the court has upheld were at least somewhat limited in their amounts and uses. Voucher funds, on the other hand, pay for entire educational costs for the children -- and sometimes more -- and can be used for any activity including worship, catechism, or the purchase of Bibles."
The high court's action comes amidst ongoing national controversy over vouchers. Other than Ohio, only Wisconsin and Florida have programs, and neither is truly statewide. The Wisconsin program is limited to Milwaukee, and Florida's plan, while theoretically statewide, currently operates only in Pensacola.
Legislators in several states considered voucher bills last year, and although recent public opinion polls show support for the concept slipping, proposals appear regularly in states like Pennsylvania, New …