Tax Credits for Religious Schools? Supreme Court Says Taxpayers Have No Say

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court rules 5 to 4 that taxpayers do not have legal standing to challenge an Arizona tax-credit program because the state is not directly funding the parochial schools.

The US Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a lawsuit filed by taxpayers in Arizona challenging a state tax credit program that primarily benefits parochial schools.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said the taxpayers lacked the necessary legal standing to bring their lawsuit.

The action sweeps away a ruling by a federal appeals court panel that had struck down the tax credit program as a violation of the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion.

The majority justices did not directly address the larger constitutional issue. Instead, the 19-page decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy focuses on whether the complaining taxpayers had suffered a direct and personal injury from Arizona's religious school tax credit program.

How much do you know about the US Constitution? A quiz.

Justice Kennedy drew a sharp distinction between government expenditures from the general treasury that directly benefit religion versus tax credits that provide individual citizens an opportunity to decide for themselves whether to direct the credited funds to a religious school.

"When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute [to the tax credit program], they spend their own money, not money the state has collected from respondents or from other taxpayers," Kennedy wrote.

"Arizona's [tax credit law] does not extract and spend a conscientious dissenter's funds in service of an establishment [of religion]," he said.

"On the contrary," Kennedy said, "respondents and other Arizona taxpayers remain free to pay their own tax bills, without contributing to [the religious school tax credit program]."

A narrow interpretation

The decision is important because it signals the intention of five members of the court to enforce a narrow interpretation of when taxpayers may be permitted to file lawsuits seeking to prove the government is engaged in unconstitutional support for or entanglement with religion.

In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the decision will make it harder for ordinary citizens to challenge government actions that they feel violate the First Amendment principle of government neutrality concerning religion.

"Today's decision devastates taxpayer standing in establishment clause cases," Justice Kagan wrote in a 24-page dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

"Appropriations and tax subsidies are readily interchangeable," Kagan wrote. "What is a cash grant today can be a tax break tomorrow."

She added: "The court's opinion thus offers a road map ... to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge."

Praise for ruling

Supporters of the tax credit program praised the ruling.

"Today's decision marks the fifth time in recent years that the Supreme Court has rebuffed efforts by school choice opponents to use the courts to halt programs that empower families to choose a private school education," said Tim Keller, executive director of the Arizona Chapter of the Institute for Justice. …