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
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. …