Religious Schools, Government Money? Supreme Court Hears Arizona Case

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court must decide if an Arizona program that gives tax credits for private school donations favors religion, or if participants in the program are just exercising personal choice.

A US Supreme Court case challenging Arizona's religious school funding program evolved into a debate over whether money from a tax credit is still the government's money even after it has been channeled by taxpayers into a private program.

It is not a minor point.

In oral argument on Wednesday, Paul Bender, a Phoenix lawyer for taxpayers opposed to the Arizona program, said the tuition assistance plan is unconstitutional because it amounts to a distribution of government funds to subsidize religious education.

Arizona taxpayers may claim a $500 tax credit when they make a donation to help underwrite private school tuition - including tuition at religious schools.

Supporters of the program maintain that the donation and tax credit are the result of a private decision that does not entangle government in any direct support for religious schools.

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Opponents say the Arizona system is designed to channel government tax credit money in a way that bolsters religious schools. They say it is unconstitutional government support for religion in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.

As in prior cases involving government and religion, the justices appear to be deeply split. The court's liberals generally are highly suspicious of interactions between government and religion, while the conservatives are less suspicious.

When Bender made his point about tax credit money being government money, several conservative justices challenged the assertion.

"That is a great leap," Justice Antonin Scalia said. "Any money the government doesn't take from me because it gives me a deduction is government money?"

Bender said there is a difference between a tax deduction which is made with the taxpayer's own money and a tax credit, which merely reduces the total amount already owed on a tax bill. "Here the taxpayer owes that money to the government," Bender said.

"The money in this case is not a charitable contribution," he added.

"This is a very important philosophical point here," Justice Samuel Alito said. "You think that all the money belongs to the government except to the extent that it deigns to allow private people to keep some of it?"

"No," Bender replied. He said if the tax credit is taken from money already due, any donation to the tuition program is a payment with government funds.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a potential decisive vote in the case, said he had "some difficulty" with the idea that an individual spending money the government doesn't take as a tax is nonetheless still government money.

He said it would be like after accepting a 10 percent senior discount at a restaurant, hearing the cashier advise you to be careful how you spend her money. …