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.
No Supreme Court hearing for mom who asked to read Bible to son's
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
"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
"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. …