Key Win for School Vouchers ; on the Last Day of Its Term, the Supreme Court Says Voucher Programs Are Constitutional

Article excerpt

Parents may use government-funded school vouchers to send their children to private religious schools without violating the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

In a landmark First Amendment decision announced on Thursday, the US Supreme Court upheld a school voucher program in Cleveland, ruling that it did not violate constitutional limits when parents rather than government officials make the decision to spend voucher money at a religious school. The vote was 5 to 4.

The decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris could be a turning point in public education in the US. It will embolden school voucher advocates nationwide, many of whom have been waiting years for a clear signal from the high court on the issue. In addition, it provides critical constitutional support for existing voucher programs in Milwaukee and Florida.

"This is monumental," says Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal advocacy group. "It removes the last significant barrier to US voucher programs." Clint Bolick, a leading voucher advocate, adds: "This was the Super Bowl for school choice and the kids won."

The decision marks a major defeat for voucher opponents, including the nation's teachers' unions, which have argued that spending public dollars in parochial schools will divert much- needed resources from public education. "Because five judges ruled this way does not make it good education policy or good public policy," says Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association.

On a broader level, the decision is evidence of a continuing 20- year shift in the Supreme Court's church-state jurisprudence away from the concept of maintaining a high wall requiring strict separation between government and religion.

Instead, the conservative majority of the court is more fully embracing a constitutional approach that favors neutrality and nondiscrimination over a total hands-off approach in areas where government interacts with religious groups.

"The Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion," Chief Justice William Rehnquist writes for the majority. "It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district." He adds: "It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options, public and private, secular and religious."

In a dissent, Justice David Souter says the decision is a "dramatic departure" from prior church-state precedent. He warns that it will open the door to increased government regulation of religion. "When government aid goes up, so does reliance on it," Mr. …